Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black also concerns a young woman entering an unfamiliar world, though in this case, it’s a contemporary suburban London world of low-level psychics and fortune tellers—sensitives, as they call themselves. Fresh out of a broken marriage, Collette signs on as factotum and aide-de-camp to a female psychic named Al. She quickly meets a coterie of psychic professionals, who appear to be mostly well-meaning fakes. There aren't nearly enough novels about work, so I particularly enjoyed the psychics' detailed conversations about aspects of their jobs: Are crystals still in this year? Have you tried offering Reiki? They're believable and funny, and it’s fun to watch Collette attempt to bring sensible management principles to such an odd business. The scenes of Al in performance are fantastic, too, the best part of the book, conveying the intimate bond between fortune teller and audience that is created as Al attempts to satisfy both their ordinary curiosity and their deeper desire to better understand the world and their lives.
For Al, however, psychic readings are by no means just a business. She sees ghosts and hears voices from her youth, and while Mantel leaves it a bit unclear whether Al’s visions are manifestations of another world or aspects of some mental illness, they are both her entrée to the spirit world and a constant, psychically damaging burden, delivering a mix of revulsion and fear. Collette’s inability to see or hear the spirits strains what should be a close relationship and sows seeds of bitterness and resentment that Collette, because of her own uncertainty about her place in life, tends carefully.
In Mantel’s suburban London, like in Salem, uncertainty and fear seem general—Al’s not the only one suffering. In the midst of great prosperity and worldly success, everyone is tense. The neighbors are worried about disease, environmental contamination, global warming, asylum seekers, hooligans, and unattached teens,
like those kids you see on sink estates hanging about parked cars—you don’t know if they’re going to break in and drive them away or just slash the tyres and scratch the paintwork. But why find out? Just don’t go there!
But really, it’s a non-specific, free-floating fear and worry, a way of dealing with the emptiness of contemporary suburban life, which Mantel paints perfectly:
She saw the full moon snared in the netting of a football field, caught there bulging, its face bruised. When a traffic snarl-up brought them to a halt, she noticed the trudging shopper with her grocery bags, leaning into the wind. She noticed the rotted wood of a balcony, London brick weeping soot, winter mould on a stack of garden chairs. A curve in the road, a pause at traffic lights, brings you close to another life, to an office window where a man leans on a filing cabinet in a crumpled shirt, as close as some man you know; while a van backs into the road, you halt, you are detained, and the pause makes you intimate with a man stroking his bald head, framed in the lighted cavity of his garage beneath the up-and-over door.
As with the Puritans, there is a hint of danger in the spaces between people. Everyone is near, but separate, prevented from making meaningful connections. In their individual houses, in their own selves, everyone seems alone, trapped by their fears of the unfamiliar, the unknown, their pasts. Al may be stuck with her ghosts, but in Mantel’s eyes, we’re all just as entangled in our emotional histories, wrapped up in our own minds, without escape. Mantel plays with such dualities throughout, setting the fat Al alongside the thin Collette, the dark spirit world against the bland real world, the awful past against the frightening future, but at the same time, she highlights the slippage between categories, the world’s refusal to align neatly and be understood.
Ultimately, Beyond Black fails to fully deliver on the promise of its early chapters. Al’s emotional life and Collette’s response to it are interesting, but a bit too much of the book is given over to revelations of details of Al’s terrible childhood that were just as effective and menacing when vaguely recollected. Collette’s solution to her uncertainty seems simultaneously pat and unlikely, and, in service of an overall point about the comparative horrors of the unknown spirit world and the all-too-well-known real world, Mantel sacrifices much of the oddness and mystery that propel the book’s opening.
But I suppose the ultimate test of whether a book’s imperfections are outweighed by its successes is whether I’d read another by the author, and in that regard, Beyond Black was clearly a success. About two hours after I finished it, I was at my local bookshop buying Hilary Mantel’s memoir, Giving Up the Ghost. I’m sure you’ll read about it soon enough.