45 of 50 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
I'm a big Mantel fan. I loved "An Experiment in Love," "Fludd," and "A Change of Climate." Mantel's gorgeous prose style even carried me most of the way through "A Place of Greater Safety--" her gigantic novel about the French revolution. And so of course I rushed out to buy "Beyond Black" as soon as I saw it reviewed.
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?
18 of 18 people found the following review helpful
Nancy A. Jackson
- Published on Amazon.com
Well, I must say, after laughing my way through Mary Roach's wonderful "Spook," a non-fiction expose of early 20th century spiritualism, I was ready to give Hilary Mantel a try. I was certainly not disappointed. Mary Roach had me in stitches over cheesecloth nasal packing presenting itself as "ectoplasm." Mantel, on the other hand, gave me a spiritualist one could love, an overweight, insecure and tender-hearted medium who puts up with both worldly and supernatural nastiness until her own good deed frees her.
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!
19 of 22 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
One of the primary purposes of fiction is to delve into the thoughts and minds of other people, areas which we don't usually have access to. With a commanding and masterful authority, what Mantel does in this novel is present a character named Alison who is a psychic and can effectively take on the traditional role of the writer: moving in and out of other characters' thoughts, delving into their pasts and oftentimes uncovering things about their lives which the characters themselves aren`t even aware of. Tragically for Alison, her own past is what remains illusive and opaque. Her father is unknown as her mother who used to work as a prostitute can't even be bothered to speculate about his identity. She bears a number of disfiguring, deep scars on her legs, but can't recall what she did to deserve being given them. She's plagued by a spiritual guide who is incredibly crass and low-minded. Although she's a very sensitive and tender individual, she's very strong. She must necessarily develop a slightly self-mocking public persona in order to carry out her work giving psychic readings to a mass audience. Beyond Black charts the painful process Alison must undergo to develop a sense of self worth and a feeling that she is someone who deserves happiness.
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.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
Like other reviewers, I wanted to give this book more than three stars. Mantel is a writer whom I very much admire and the idea of this book seized my imagination before I even started to read.
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.
15 of 18 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
I am a Mantel fan, and I have enjoyed her books in the past. Saying that, Beyond Black was a big disappointment for me.
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.