Here’s a little occasional series on good books. If, like me, you wander into a bookshop and see hundreds of titles and you just want to read them all, or you can never find a good book, I hope this’ll help. I’ll be sharing any great ones I come across…
You probably have heard of Hilary Mantel: she recently won the Booker Prize for a second time for her follow-up to Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies. Mantel is a great writer, and I enjoyed Wolf Hall, however I found myself struggling towards the end. It was just so long, and knowing that this wasn’t the end of Thomas Cromwell’s story- Henry had just married Anne and there was a whole book to go!- kind of dulled my enjoyment.
But my feeble attention span was completely taken by her 2005 novel, Beyond Black. There’s no political intrigue or great mystery to be solved here, just an entertaining, poignant and sometimes creepy look at a life very different from most.
Alison Hart can see ghosts, and not very nice ghosts either. She had a childhood which makes Oliver Twist’s time in the workhouse seem pleasant, and the spectres that haunt her include the ghosts of her past. Her spirit guide Morris torments her and molests, yes, molests, other psychics. Alison’s life is not a happy one. She is obese because she needs her physical bulk to protect her from the spirits that would love to hurt her. Her manager, Colette, is described on the book’s blurb as “flinty” but a better description would be the Irish phrase “lightning bitch”.
The relationship between Alison and Colette forms the core basis of the book. It is a very toxic friendship: Alison depends on Colette for everything. She cannot drive because the spirits are likely to distract her, so Colette does it. Alison is useless with money and bookings so Colette controls her chequebook and schedule. She also attempts to control Alison’s diet and constantly belittles her for her weight problem. Mantel paints the disintegration of this relationship expertly, as well as Alison’s own collapse and confrontation with the demons from her past.
But this book is not at all grim- it is funny. Very funny. The ghosts Alison meets worry about food, drink and money, despite it not being possible “airside” to enjoy anything of the sort. The world of the dead is likened to 1950s middle England, on a Sunday. The death of Princess Diana is wickedly described-weary psychics have to console every Tom, Dick and Harry about her safe transition to other side. Lady Di herself makes an appearance which is poignant, eerie and quite funny.
There’s also the psychics who can’t stand Colette and spend most of their time bitching about each other and discussing the best suppliers in the UK for runes and cauldrons. They’re all called things like Mandy but pretend their names are Natasha or Silvana while on stage. Oh, and apart from Alison, whose ability is undoubted, they’re mostly fakes. The humour is pitch-dark, and it’s brilliant. Even Alison’s neglectful mother is funny in a horrific way.
This is a really great read which not only speaks volumes about modern England, but how we all deal with the ghosts of our pasts. Highly recommended.