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From Publishers Weekly
Instead of celebrating the mystical side of "sensitives," the people who travel England's contemporary psychic "fayre" circuit, Mantel (A Change of Climate, etc.) concentrates on the potential banality of spiritualism in her latest novel, a no-nonsense exploration of the world of public and private clairvoyance. Colette is a down-on-her-luck event planner fresh from a divorce when she attends a two-day Psychic Extravaganza, her "introduction to the metaphorical side of life." There, Alison, a true clairvoyant, "reads" Colette, sees her need for a new life—as well as her potential—and hires her as a Girl Friday. As Colette's responsibilities grow, and the line between the professional and the personal blurs, Colette takes over Alison's marketing, builds her Web site, plans for a book and buys a house with her. Colette also serves as a sort of buffer between Alison and the multitude of spirits who beleaguer her. (Alison's spirit guide, Morris, "a little bouncing circus clown," proves especially troublesome.) Mantel's portraits of the two leading characters as well as those of the supporting cast—both on and off this mortal coil—are sharply drawn. This witty, matter-of-fact look at the psychic milieu reveals a supernatural world that can be as mundane as the world of carpet salesmen and shopkeepers. (May)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
Fans of Mantel's 2003 memoir, Giving Up the Ghost (2003), will recognize aspects of the author in the sympathetic heroine of her tenth book, a darkly funny novel about the odd relationships formed among the living and the dead. Alison Hart, nearing 40, overweight and happily single, is a spiritual seer by trade. She reads palms and tarot cards; in villages throughout England, she performs in front of packed crowds, her stage act a combination of fortune-telling and "communications" with the other side. In an age of celebrity deaths and terrorist attacks, Alison's authentic spiritual gifts are highly prized, but her personal life is in shambles, physically, emotionally, and financially. Help arrives in the form of Colette, a recently divorced, no-nonsense professional, who sees Alison's predicament as an opportunity to reinvent both women's lives. Obstacles to Colette's ambitious plans include nosy neighbors, competing psychics, even adversaries from beyond--especially a gang of menacing thugs from Alison's childhood. A contemporary ghost story told with humor and heart, this novel is sure to conjure up new readers for Mantel. James Klise
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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A recent New Yorker article on Mantel gave me the idea that she might have something to tell me, and I was happily right. I was already prepared for the eerie and inexplicable; Mary Roach, however, prepared me for
mediums fortified with cooking sherry and booking rooms in pubs and bowling alleys. As I was completely new to Mantel, I found myself immersed in her unique mix of humor and ugliness. I was just delighted when a grey sock turned up in Colette's dryer (a very ominous sign), and when Al found her new spirit guides to be two little old ladies who required padded drawers on outings.
I'll read Mantel again, that's a certainty. In the meantime, it's four stars for "Beyond Black"...and an unconditional plug for Mary Roach's "Spook," while we're at it!
As a novelist, Mantel has never been one to tip her hand. She keeps us guessing, for example about the true identity of the title character in "Fludd," and we never know how the protaganist of "An Experiment in Love" gets over her anorexia. When it comes to characterization Mantel shows rather than tells; she relies on evocative imagery, rather than on psychobabble, to shed light on the motivation of her characters. As Margaret Atwood says in her review of "An Experiment in Love," it is "what you don't know" that haunts you after you've finished one of Mantel's novels.
But I think that Mantel goes too far off in this direction in "Beyond Black." She simply doesn't tell the reader enough to make the story hang together. Her background characters-- Alison's psychic colleagues, Colette's ex-husband, even the spectral Morris-- are caricatures. And the two protagonists are incomprehensible. We never really understand what draws Colette to the "psychic business" in the first place, given that she spends most of the novel being so skeptical. And we never really understand what it's like to be Allison, to have the dead tormenting you all the time. The flashbacks to Allison's past are ghastly and beautiful, but the "present tense" narrative is mostly taken up by innane dialogue that never seems to go anywhere.
Both of the reviews I read of this book-- in the New York Times and the Washington Post-- are very favorable, so I'm wondering if I'm missing something. Did anybody see anything in this novel that I didn't?
Mantel has a magnificent talent for writing about the indignation people feel when trapped within systems which treat them impersonally. She's written about this when describing her experiences in hospital within her insightful memoir Giving up the Ghost. In one scene of Beyond Black, Alison and her business partner Colette buy a new house. The anguish of dealing with an estate agent who assumes they are lesbians and treats them with a perfunctory formality is expertly described. There is also a very funny scene when Alison goes to the doctor. Ironically, because of her psychic ability, she's able to diagnose the doctor's ailments better than he is able to assess her condition. These scenes painfully evoke the dilemmas we face in modern society when caught within a capitalist system which impersonally deals with customers rather than individuals.
In this richly detailed book, Mantel is more concerned with the intricate psychology of her characters and the muddled, bizarre experiences of psychics rather than with constructing a thrilling plot. There is a complicated mystery at work. But those seeking a more traditional spook story may be disappointed. Mantel doesn't go for cheap horrors by writing about things going bump in the night or illusive shrouded figures spied in the distance. The real horrors she explores are the mundane concerns which clutter our daily lives and the possibility that these trivial obsessions can continue after death. Rather than presenting the after-life as one of two extremes: blissful paradise or tortured damnation, she offers the terrifying possibility that existential anxiety might plague us even after death. Hilariously, Mantel at one point likens this vague longing and unsettling condition to waiting in line at the National Health Service. This is almost an extension of an idea Sartre presented in his play No Exit. If Hell is other people, then in Mantel's world we will be complaining, nagging, annoying and infuriating each other for eternity - a horrific thought indeed.
The book opens wonderfully, and I was fully engaged within a few pages. The characters are well-drawn. While not sympathetic, Allison and Colette are very real. Mantel engages her trademark blend of sympathy and savagery while describing these women and their damaged lives.
The real struggle with the book comes midway through the story. As though she painted herself into a corner, the trope of revelation through the conversations with Morris falls flat and becomes repetitive. I got and even respect the parody of the "troubled childhood gradually revealing itself" that Mantel uses. It's very funny, and the humor resonates with the real grief of broken lives. This said, the joke goes on for far too long, and by the end of the book I was simply glad that it was over. 100 pages less would have done a lot to tighten the book and correct most of the problems that I had with the build up of the story.
There are some truly brilliant bits sprinkled throughout the book. Humor and pathos and the claustrophobia of life around the highways are the gems of the novel. I wish that they could have been more consistent, or more densely placed.
Fans of Mantel should read it. Be aware that it is not her best work. Particularly given the glowing reviews, it is a bit of a disappointment. Probably obvious if you know anything about Mantel as a writer, but this isn't a novel suitable for younger readers. Much of the material is extremely disturbing and often quite graphic.
Mantel is a wonderful writer, and her clever prose is apparent in this book. It's the plot and characterization that I found so troublesome, and this was not a page-turner at all for me.
Summary, no spoilers:
Alison is a very sweet, and very obese psychic. She meets Colette, who is in the audience at a show where Alison is doing readings.
Colette is a young woman who is described as very nondescript...kind of beige. She has few friends, and marries a cold and equally nondescript husband. She seems devoid of much passion or personality, at least when we first meet her. She was the most problematic character for me, and she seemed the most incomplete.
Alison hires Colette to be her assistant, and help with her business affairs. It's never really clear why Colette is chosen, and it's also never clear why Alison keeps Colette, who is verbally and emotionally abusive to Alison under the guise of caring and concern. (She constantly calls her "fat".) I understood that Alison had her need for Colette, but I never felt that was enough to explain her keeping her on, especially towards the end.
Alison is a very gifted "Sensitive", and she is often visited by a horrible ghost named Morris, who unfortunately is her "spirit guide". Alison is often plagued by nightmares, and by visitations from a group of fiendish men, whom we understand Alison may have known in her youth. Her life is full of horrors, and as the book progresses it starts spiraling out of control.
Without giving anything away, we come to understand that Alison has had an unbearably horrible childhood, and those traumas have obviously impacted her present world.
Part of my problem with this book may be my own: I am not particularly wild about stories involving psychics and spirits, but I have enjoyed such books in the past.
The real problem with this book, for me, was that the characters and plot seemed so incomplete. I felt like this was a rough draft of part of a novel, rather than a completed work. And there were *endless* boring and tedious paragraphs consisting of the ramblings of the various ghosts, and fellow Sensitives.
I really wish I could give this book more than 3 stars, because there are some well written passages, and Mantel is a gifted writer. But this one just didn't work, and it was really an effort to make myself finish.
As far as a choice for a book club, I will say there are things to discuss. And there are things deliberately left ambiguous, which I thought was a nice touch.
Too bad this couldn't have been pulled together into a more cohesive and entertaining book. The first 100 pages were pretty good and I was hopeful, but it just went downhill quickly after that.