martes, 18 de octubre de 2011

A review of Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel

In her novel Beyond Black, Hilary Mantel presents a series of characters who ought to be Mr and Mrs, or Uncle and Auntie Normal. They all live near the M25, London’s orbital motorway and inhabit places as interesting as Slough, Maidenhead and Uxbridge. Even distant Essex gets a mention. But many of these people aren’t normal, or average, or even alive, for that matter. Many of them are in fact the dreaded four-letter d-word, the word that the book’s principal character prefers not to say out loud.

Alison is a medium. This m-word applies to her trade, not her stature, which is determinedly out-size. She is a large woman, fat, to be precise, if that is not an f-word. She regularly communicates professionally with the spirit world in front of a live audience. At least some of them seem to be alive. Alison works with an assistant, Colette, a woman with a history of her own. They even live together, but don’t start thinking there’s any funny business between them. Oh no! This is the M25 we are near, after all.

Alison and Colette have their own lives, and their own pasts. Alison’s seems to be the more lurid. Mother was a professional woman, the kind that admits to the world’s oldest profession, and so can’t be sure who might have been Alison’s father. The mother and all the candidates for the role of father are now ex, deceased, d-word, but of course Alison is a medium – a large medium – so she can effectively meet with them whenever she wants. One of them is called Keef, but he probably spelled it Keith.

Colette’s past is much more mundane, but it has had its ups and downs. She has had her share of dealing with men, enough to have them come back to haunt her. She seems to value the stability offered by Alison’s regular work. They even buy a house together, one of those new ones on an estate. But don’t you think there’s anything going on between them!

There are pleasant, even amusing moments in beyond Black. But overall the book is too long and presents little to challenge or inform the reader. These are people we have to take at face value, since their engagement with the world seems to go no deeper than this. And it always seems strange that, given the number of d-word people who clearly don’t exist any more, that a medium quite by chance encounters one of them who knows someone in that night’s audience. The chances of that happening must be very slim indeed, a lot slimmer than Alison, at least.

As Alison and Colette examine their past and current lives, Colette starts to tape their conversations with a view to putting it all down on paper. She might even write a book. But the recordings are regularly interrupted by memories from the spirit world who always want to have their own say. At least the dead are electromagnetic. I mean, it’s all in the past. Can’t they just let go? Thus we examine the two women’s identities.

Beyond Black presents a sometimes funny, generally entertaining, if rather long read. But it is a book that challenges little and does not inform. It also only inhabits the surfaces of its characters. But then they do live near the M25.

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