I've never read Hilary Mantel before and I found Beyond Black a smart, entertaining, provocative read. It is a blunt, funny story of a professional medium, Alison, who seeks to help others via what she hears from the voices of the dead. However, she is haunted not merely by these voices but by her own private ghosts who have imprisoned her in a relationship with her life that is no longer to her liking. She is weighed down both metaphorically and literally. She is a large woman, the classic portrait of someone who eats for comfort, insulating herself from the harshness of her life. She meets Colette, superficially her polar opposite, tight while Alison is free, hard while she is soft... but Colette is also painted into a corner by her past and as she becomes Alison's business partner, as well as partners in learning to live with themselves.
Alison was a woman who seemed to fill a room, even when she wasn't in it. She was of an unfeasible size, with plump creamy shoulders, rounded calves, thighs and hips that overflowed her chair; she was soft as an Edwardian, opulent as a showgirl, and when she moved you could hear (though she did not wear them) the rustle of plumes and silks. In a small space, she seemed to use up more than her share of the oxygen; in return her skin breathed out moist perfumes, like a giant tropical flower. When you came into a room she'd left - her bedroom, her hotel room, her dressing room backstage - you felt her as a presence, a trail. Alison had gone, but you would see a chemical mist of hairspray falling through the bright air. On the floor would be a line of talcum powder, her scent - Je Reviens - would linger in curtain fabric, in cushions and in the weave of towels. When she headed for a spirit encounter, her path was charged, electric; and when her body was out on stage, her face - cheeks glowing, eyes alight - seemed to float still in the dressing-room mirror.
In the centre of the room Colette stooped, picked up Al's shoes. For a moment she disappeared from her own view. When her face bobbed back into sight in the mirror, she was almost relieved. What's wrong with me? she thought. When I'm gone I leave no trace. Perfume doesn't last on my skin. I barely sweat. My feet don't indent the carpet.
'It's true,' Alison said. 'It's as if you wipe out the signs of yourself as you go. Like a robot housekeeper. You polish your own fingerprints away.'
While this is touted as a ghost story, and it is in two senses, it is also a story of horror (the personal kind), and it most reminds me of a buddy film.
Aside from the clarity of her descriptive writing, what I admire most about Mantel is how much, when the story gets going, she trusts her reader to understand through inference and accumulation of detail rather than laying every little thing out. The descriptions of Alison's touring show to the middle class 'burbs on outskirts of London are spot-on for dialogue and, at times, laugh-out-loud funny. They contrast noticeably with the harshness of Alison's past in a way that reminds me of the recent film Pan's Labyrinth - a beautiful, cruel film about a young girl who retreats into her fantasies to escape the horror of her life in revolution-torn Spain. In Beyond Black comedy bumps up against tragedy, the everyday against the supernatural and these categories refuse to remain distinct - messily overlapping and playing with each other.
Mantel's afterlife is imaginative, bitter, seedy, and amusing (it has some of the ironic flavor of Truly, Madly, Deeply if you know that fabulous film and if you don't rent it! Hearfelt acting by the fabulous Juliette Stevenson). There is an hilarious sequence toward the end of the novel involving Princess Di, Alison, and her bevy of neurotic medium friends (I won't say any more, but it's really funny). After reading Beyond Black I will definitely look for some more stuff by Mantel - any recommendations?