August 2005

Arts & Letters

‘Beyond Black’ by Hilary Mantel

By Inga Clendinnen

Alison is a professional psychic working a cluster of grim towns on the fringe of London. She is a woman of “unfeasible size” but onstage, in her draperies, sporting her lucky opals, she transforms into a woman of confidence, presence and charm. While she uses the usual tricks of her trade Alison has an unusual advantage. She really can talk to the dead – or rather, those dead unreconciled to their abrupt cancellation from the world and desperate to finish unfinished business clamour for her attention. And she gives it, wearily, patiently, kindly.

She is patient with her disreputable spirit-guide, Morris, who is vulgar, foul-tongued and sustains some very nasty habits, because she had known him when he was “earthside” and she a child managing to survive in a spectacularly dysfunctional household. Given its hideous circumstance, she seems strangely sentimental about her childhood. Then the ghosts of the men who used to lord it over her fuddled mother’s household, drawn by the lonely Morris, begin to close in.

Alison has only fragmentary memories of her childhood. The backs of her legs are scarred; she doesn’t know how. She is fascinated by cutlery; she doesn’t know why. Then she begins to remember ... and we suddenly hope she is mad. But what if she is not? In her earlier novels Mantel gave new life to the old phrase “the banality of evil”, nonchalantly mixing wild horror with social comment, high humour and low comedy. She specialised in uncovering evil lurking in apparently domestic circumstances. This time she promises to take us “beyond black”, and I think she does. The question is: will we dare go with her?

Inga Clendinnen
Inga Clendinnen is an academic, historian and writer. Her book Reading the Holocaust was judged Best Book of the Year by the New York Times in 1999.

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