Hailed as a "writer of subtlety and depth," Hilary Mantel turns her dark genius on the world of psychics in this smart, unsettling novel (Joyce Carol Oates)
A paragon of efficiency, Colette took the next natural step after finishing secretarial school by marrying a man who would do just fine. After a sobering, do-it-yourself divorce, Colette is at a loss for what to do next. Convinced that she is due an out-of-hand, life-affirming revelation, she strays into the realm of psychics and clairvoyants, hungry for a whisper to set her off in the right direction. At a psychic fair in Windsor she meets the charismatic Alison.
Alison, the daughter of a prostitute, beleaguered during her childhood by the pressures of her connection to the spiritual world, lives in a different kind of solitude. She cannot escape the dead who speak to her, least of all the constant presence of Morris, her low-life spiritual guide. An expansive presence onstage, Alison at once feels her bond with Colette, inviting her to join her on the road as her personal assistant and companion.
Troubles spiral out of control when the pair moves to a suburban wasteland in what was once the English countryside and take up with a spirit guide and his drowned therapist. It is not long before Alison's connection to the place beyond black threatens to uproot their lives forever. This is Hilary Mantel at her finest- insightful, darkly comic, unorthodox, and thrilling to read.
|Publisher:||Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.|
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About the Author
Among Hilary Mantel's major novels are A Change of Climate, A Place of Greater Safety, and Eight Months on Ghazzah Street. She has also written a memoir, Giving Up the Ghost. Winner of the Hawthornden Prize, she reviews for The New York Times and The New York Review of Books, and lives in England.
Hilary Mantel is the two-time winner of the Man Booker Prize for her best-selling novels, Wolf Hall, and its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies—an unprecedented achievement. The Royal Shakespeare Company adapted Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies for the stage to colossal critical acclaim, and the BBC/Masterpiece six-part adaption of the novels aired in 2015.
The author of fourteen books, she is currently at work on the third installment of the Thomas Cromwell Trilogy.
Read an Excerpt
Beyond BLACKa novel
By Hilary Mantel
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2005 Hilary Mantel
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTravelling: the dank oily days after Christmas. The motorway, its wastes looping London: the margin's scrub grass flaring orange in the lights, and the leaves of the poisoned shrubs striped yellow-green like a cantaloupe melon. Four o'clock: light sinking over the orbital road. Teatime in Enfield, night falling on Potter's Bar. There are nights when you don't want to do it, but you have to do it anyway. Nights when you look down from the stage and see closed stupid faces. Messages from the dead arrive at random. You don't want them and you can't send them back. The dead won't be coaxed and they won't be coerced. But the public has paid its money and it wants results.
A sea-green sky: lamps blossoming white. This is marginal land: fields of strung wire, of treadless tyres in ditches, fridges dead on their backs, and starving ponies cropping the mud. It is a landscape running with outcasts and escapees, with Afghans, Turks and Kurds: with scapegoats, scarred with bottle and burn marks, limping from the cities with broken ribs. The life forms here are rejects, or anomalies: the cats tipped from speeding cars, and the Heathrow sheep, their fleece clotted with the stench of aviation fuel.
Beside her, in profile against the fogged window, the driver's face is set. In the back seat, something dead stirs, and begins to grunt and breathe. The car flees across the junctions, and the space the road encloses is the space inside her: the arena of combat, the wasteland, the place of civil strife behind her ribs. A heart beats, taillights wink. Dim lights shine from tower blocks, from passing helicopters, from fixed stars. Night closes in on the perjured ministers and burnt-out pedophiles, on the unloved viaducts and graffitied bridges, on ditches beneath mouldering hedgerows and railings never warmed by human touch.
Night and winter: but in the rotten nests and empty setts, she can feel the signs of growth, intimations of spring. This is the time of Le Pendu, the Hanged Man, swinging by his foot from the living tree. It is a time of suspension, of hesitation, of the indrawn breath. It is a time to let go of expectation, yet not abandon hope; to anticipate the turn of the Wheel of Fortune. This is our life and we have to lead it. Think of the alternative.
A static cloud bank, like an ink smudge. Darkening air.
It's no good asking me whether I'd choose to be like this, because I've never had a choice. I don't know about anything else. I've never been any other way.
And darker still. Colour has run out from the land. Only form is left: the clumped treetops like a dragon's back. The sky deepens to midnight blue. The orange of the streetlights is blotted to a fondant cerise; in pastureland, the pylons lift their skirts in a ferrous gavotte.
Chapter TwoColette put her head around the dressing room door. "All right?" she said. "It's a full house."
Alison was leaning into the mirror, about to paint her mouth on. "Could you find me a coffee?"
"'Or a gin and tonic?"
"Yes, go on then."
She was in her psychic kit now; she had flung her day clothes over the back of a chair. Colette swooped on them; lady's maid was part of her job. She slid her forearm inside Al's black crepe skirt. It was as large as a funerary banner, a pall. As she turned it the right way out, she felt a tiny stir of disgust, as if flesh might be clinging to the seams.
Alison was a woman who seemed to fill a room, even when she wasn't in it. She was of an unfeasible size, with plump creamy shoulders, rounded calves, thighs and hips that overflowed her chair; she was soft as an Edwardian, opulent as a showgirl, and when she moved you could hear (though she did not wear them) the rustle of plumes and silks. In a small space, she seemed to use up more than her share of the oxygen; in return her skin breathed out moist perfumes, like a giant tropical flower. When you came into a room she'd left-her bedroom, her hotel room, her dressing room backstage-you felt her as a presence, a trail. Alison had gone, but you would see a chemical mist of hair spray falling through the bright air. On the floor would be a line of talcum powder, and her scent-Je Reviens-would linger in curtain fabric, in cushions, and in the weave of towels. When she headed for a spirit encounter, her path was charged, electric; when her body was out on stage, her face-cheeks glowing, eyes alight-seemed to float still in the dressing room mirror.
In the centre of the room Colette stooped, picked up Al's shoes. For a moment she disappeared from her own view. When her face bobbed back into sight in the mirror, she was almost relieved. What's wrong with me? she thought. When I'm gone I leave no trace. Perfume doesn't last on my skin. I barely sweat. My feet don't indent the carpet.
"It's true," Alison said. "It's as if you wipe out the signs of yourself as you go. Like a robot housekeeper. You polish your own fingerprints away."
"Don't be silly." Colette said. "And don't read my private thoughts." She shook the black skirt, as if shaking Alison.
"I often ask myself, let's see now, is Colette in the room or not? When you've been gone for an hour or two, I wonder if I've imagined you."
Colette looped the black skirt onto a hanger, and hung it on the back of the long mirror. Soon Al's big black overshirt joined it. It was Colette who had persuaded her into black. Black, she had said, black and perfectly plain. But Alison abhorred plainness. There must be something to capture the gaze, something to shiver, something to shine. At first glance the shirt seemed devoid of ornament, but a thin line of sequins ran down the sleeve, like the eyes of sly aliens, reflecting black within black. For her work onstage, she insisted on colour: emerald, burnt orange, scarlet. "The last thing you want, when you go out there," she explained, "is to make them think of funerals."
Now she pouted at herself in the glass. "I think that's quite nice, don't you?"
Colette glanced at her. "Yes, it suits you."
Alison was a genius with makeup. She had boxes full and she used it all, carrying it in colour-coded wash bags and cases fitted with loops for brushes and small-size bottles. If the spirit moved her to want some apricot eye shadow, she knew just which bag to dip into. To Colette, it was a mystery. When she went out to get herself a new lipstick, she came back with one that, when applied, turned out to be the same colour as all the others she had, which was always, give or take, the colour of her lips.
"So what's that shade called?" she asked.
Alison observed herself, a cotton bud poised, and effected an invisible improvement to her underlip. "Dunno. Why don't you try it? But get me that drink first." Her hand moved for her lipstick sealant. She almost said, look out, Colette, don't tread on Morris.
He was on the floor, half sitting and half lying, slumped against the wall; his stumpy legs were spread out, and his fingers played with his fly buttons. When Colette stepped back she trampled straight over him.
As usual she didn't notice. But Morris did. "Fucking stuck-up cow," he said, as Colette went out. "White-faced fucking freak. She's like a bloody ghoul. Where did you get her, gel, a churchyard?"
Under her breath Alison swore back at him. In Colette's five years as her partner, he'd never accepted her; time meant little to Morris. "What would you know about churchyards?" she asked him. "I bet you never had a Christian burial. Concrete boots and a dip in the river, considering the people you mixed with. Or maybe you were sawed up with your own saw?"
Alison leaned forward again into the mirror, and slicked her mouth with the tiny brush from the glass tube. It tickled and stung. Her lips flinched from it. She made a face at herself. Morris chuckled.
It was almost the worst thing, having him around at times like these, in your dressing room, before the show, when you were trying to calm yourself down and have your intimate moments. He would follow you to the lavatory if he was in that sort of mood. A colleague had once said to her, "It seems to me that your guide is on a very low vibratory plane, very low indeed. Had you been drinking when he first made contact?"
"No," Al had told her. "I was only thirteen."
"Oh, that's a terrible age," the woman said. She looked Alison up and down. "Junk food, I expect. Empty calories. Stuffing yourself.'"
She'd denied it, of course. In point of fact she never had any money after school for burgers or chocolate, her mum keeping her short in case she used the money to get on a bus and run away. But she couldn't put any force into her denial. Her colleague was right, Morris was a low person. How did she get him? She probably deserved him, that was all there was to it. Sometimes she would say to him, Morris, what did I do to deserve you? He would rub his hands and chortle. When she had provoked him and he was in a temper with her, he would say, count your blessings, girl, you fink I'm bad but you could of had MacArthur. You could have had Bob Fox, or Aitkenside, or Pikey Pete. You could have had my mate Keef Capstick. You could of had Nick, and then where'd you be?
Mrs. Etchells (who taught her the psychic trade) had always told her, there are some spirits, Alison, who you already know from way back, and you just have to put names to the faces. There are some spirits that are spiteful and will do you a bad turn. There are others that are bloody buggering bastards, excuse my French, who will suck the marrow out your bones. Yes, Mrs. E, she'd said, but how will I know which are which? And Mrs. Etchells had said, God help you, girl. But God having business elsewhere, I don't expect he will.
Colette crossed the foyer, heading for the bar. Her eyes swept over the paying public, flocking in from the dappled street; ten women to every man. Each evening she liked to get a fix on them, so she could tell Alison what to expect. Had they prebooked, or were they queuing at the box office? Were they swarming in groups, laughing and chatting, or edging through the foyer in singles and pairs, furtive and speechless? You could probably plot it on a graph, she thought, or have some kind of computer programme: the demographics of each town, its typical punters and their networks, the location of the venue relative to car parks, pizza parlours, the nearest bar where young girls could go in a crowd.
The venue manager nodded to her. He was a worn little bloke coming up to retirement; his dinner jacket had a whitish bloom on it and was tight under the arms. "All right?" he said. Colette nodded, unsmiling; he swayed back on his heels, and as if he had never seen them before he surveyed the bags of sweets hanging on their metal pegs, and the ranks of chocolate bars.
Why can't men just stand? Colette wondered. Why do they have to sway on the spot and feel in their pockets and pat themselves up and down and suck their teeth? Alison's poster was displayed six times, at various spots through the foyer. The flyers around advertised forthcoming events: Faure's Requiem, giving way in early December to Jack and the Beanstalk.
Alison was a Sensitive: which is to say, her senses were arranged in a different way from the senses of most people. She was a medium: dead people talked to her, and she talked back. She was a clairvoyant; she could see straight through the living, to their ambitions and secret sorrows, and tell you what they kept in their bedside drawers and how they had travelled to the venue. She wasn't (by nature) a fortune-teller, but it was hard to make people understand that. Prediction, though she protested against it, had become a lucrative part of her business. At the end of the day, she believed, you have to suit the public and give them what they think they want. For fortunes, the biggest part of the trade was young girls. They always thought there might be a stranger on the horizon, love around the corner. They hoped for a better boyfriend than the one they'd got-more socialized, less spotty: or at least, one who wasn't on remand. Men, on their own behalf, were not interested in fortune or fate. They believed they made their own, thanks very much. As for the dead, why should they worry about them? If they need to talk to their relatives, they have women to do that for them.
"G and T," Colette said to the girl behind the bar. "Large."
The girl reached for a glass and shoveled in a single ice cube.
"You can do better than that," Colette said. "And lemon."
She looked around. The bar was empty. The walls were padded to hip height with turquoise plastic leather, deep-buttoned. They'd been needing a damp cloth over them since about 1975. The fake wood tables looked sticky: the same applied.
The girl's scoop probed the ice bucket. Another cube slinked down the side of the glass, to join its predecessor with a dull tap. The girl's face showed nothing. Her full, lead-coloured eyes slid away from Colette's face. She mouthed the price.
"For tonight's artiste," Colette said. "On the house, I'd have thought!"
The girl did not understand the expression. She had never heard "on the house." She closed her eyes briefly: blue-veined lids.
Back through the foyer. It was filling up nicely. On the way to their seats, the audience had to pass the easel she had set up, with Al's superenlarged picture swathed in a length of apricot polyester that Al called "my silk." At first Colette had had trouble draping it, getting the loops just right, but now she'd got it pat-a twist of her wrist made a loop over the top of the portrait, another turn made a drift down one side, and the remainder spilled in graceful folds to whatever gritty carpet or bare boards they were performing on that night. She was working hard to break Al's addiction to this particular bit of kitsch. Unbelievably tacky, she'd said, when she first joined her. She thought instead of a screen on which Al's image was projected. But Al had said, you don't want to find yourself overshadowed by the special effects. Look, Col, I've been told this, and it's one bit of advice I'll never forget; remember your roots. Remember where you started. In my case, that's the village hall at Brookwood. So when you're thinking of special effects, ask yourself, can you reproduce it in the village hall? If you can't, forget it. It's me they've come to see, after all. I'm a professional psychic, not some sort of magic act.
The truth was, Al adored the photo. It was seven years old now. The studio had mysteriously disappeared two of her chins; and caught those big starry eyes, her smile, and something of her sheen, that inward luminescence that Colette envied.
"All right?" said the manager. "All humming along, backstage?" He had slid back the lid of the ice cream chest and was peering within.
"Trouble in there?" Colette asked.
Excerpted from Beyond BLACK by Hilary Mantel Copyright © 2005 by Hilary Mantel. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Reading Group Guide
1. Beyond Black is set in contemporary England, a world of internet, suburbs, and commuting. Why do you think Hilary Mantel chose this period in time? How would the novel be different had she set it in a different time period? What does Mantel seem to be saying about contemporary English life?
2. Describe Alison's relationship with Colette. What do the characters offer one another? How does their relationship change as time passes? How do think their histories and appearances (Alison being extremely overweight, Colette being thin and drawn) affects the way in which they deal with one another and why?
3. Describe Alison's connection with those on the other side. How different are the living from those "beyond black"? How would you describe Morris? Has his behavior changed since he was living? If so, in what way? Do any characters, dead or living, seem happy or healthy?
4. How does Princess Diana's death play a key part in the book? How do you feel about the way Mantel handled the fictional representation of a real person? Why did Mantel choose to draw her in this particular way and is it different from the Princess Diana you imagined?
5. Alison's terrible childhood is revealed gradually in the novel, through flashbacks and Morris, her despicable spirit guide. Why did Mantel choose to do this? How would the novel and your opinions of the characters have changed had Alison's childhood been revealed sooner?
6. Beyond Black is a dark and often disturbing novel. Did Mantel's use of humor and wit make the story more digestible? Had Mantel addressed the themes of the book in a more serious fashion, how would the reading experience have been different? Where is the light in Beyond Black?
7. By the end of the book, did you feel as though Alison had found some redemption? What do you see in Alison's future, beyond the end of the story?
8. Mantel presents the life of a psychic as banal and ordinary. Why do you think Alison is portrayed simply as a woman doing a job? Why do you think Mantel presents the supernatural world to be as mundane as everyday life? Did the story make you reconsider your thoughts and feelings about the supernatural?
9. Alison has extrasensory powers, but can only vaguely recall her childhood. Did you find this ironic? What does Mantel seem to be saying?
10. Do you see a difference between the way Alison deals with clients and audience members when talking about their pasts and futures and the way in which she deals with her own? How is her language and tone different?
11. Alison knows whatever she says to her audience members or personal clients will be accepted, though she may, on occasion, have to tweak and hone. What assumptions does Alison make about the types of people who seek her services?
12. How are the jobs of novelist and clairvoyant similar? How are they different? What advantages did Mantel, an accomplished novelist, have in the telling of this story?
13. Morris's mates start to show up just as Alison begins dictating her autobiography. Is this coincidence? Is it metaphor?
14. Did you believe Alison was truly seeing or hearing all of the supernatural events? Did it matter to you?
15. Have you had any experiences with psychics or clairvoyants either in person or on television, for instance America's John Edwards? Was the experience similar to what's portrayed in Beyond Black?
16. Many novels (from Dante Alighieri's The Devine Comedy to Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones) and movies (The Sixth Sense and Ghost) have depicted the afterlife. How is Mantel's depiction different from those? In what ways is it similar?