As I was reading Beyond Black I was thinking 'How can I be enjoying this?' It is such dark subject matter, sometimes relentlessy grim and yet I really, really enjoyed it. Part of it is Hilary Mantel's wonderful writing, of which I was already a fan and also because it's interspersed with little bits of humour which sneak up and lift the mood.
The main character is Alison, who works as a medium on the showbiz circuit in south-east England. She is a warm character, very professional and very gifted. Her past is almost unimaginably horrific. Her childhood was spent with her prostitute mother and the string of low-life men who used their house as a meeting place. She was sold and abused and witness to constant violence. It is difficult to imagine a more destructive and chaotic background. Somehow she has come through it, though not without damage. Her spirit guide is Morris, one of the men who hung around her mother. He's a disgusting character, malevolent and cruel and self-pitying. Then the rest of the men troop along in spirit;
"Morris said, 'Have you seen MacArthur, he's a mate of mine and Keef Capstick, he is a mate of Keef's too. Have you seen MacArthur, he is a mate of mine and he wears a knitted weskit. Have you seen MacArthur, he has only one eye, have you seen him, he has one earlobe ripped off, a sailor ripped it off in a fracas, that's what he tells people. How did he lose his eye? Well that's another story. He blames that on a sailor too, but round here we know he's lying.' And Morris gave a dirty laugh."
Into Alison's life comes Colette. Alison employs her as a live-in assistant and she takes care of the financial side of the business. A disappointed woman, verging on bitter, Colette struggles to fit in the world of mediums and spiritualism. Alison's life is complicated, there are layers and layers to it, whereas Colette seems to be a very literal and surface person. Perhaps Alison feels that having Colette in her life will anchor her. However chaos creeps closer and closer and in the end it is only Alison who can deal with it.
Surprisingly I didn't find this a spooky book (and I am very easily spooked!) It's full of spirits and ghosts and manifestations but they're dealt with in such a matter of fact way that they seem perfectly normal. The mediums are businesswomen, some are more gifted than others, but they're all looking for new business ideas or new marketing schemes. They're family to each other out on the fringes of society. Colette is on the fringes of society too, mainly due to her somewhat abrasive personality, but she desperately wants to be conventional. Conventional is something Alison and her friends have no experience of, and no desire for.
I mentioned that I had just finished this book in the comments of another blog and it was suggested that I read Mantel's memoir Giving Up The Ghost, as it is quite illuminating regarding Beyond Black. I've ordered it at the library and can't wait to read it.