In her 2003 memoir "Giving Up the Ghost," British writer Hilary Mantel talked matter-of-factly about seeing ghosts around her house whenever she...
by Hilary Mantel
Holt, 365 pp., $26
In her 2003 memoir “Giving Up the Ghost,” British writer Hilary Mantel talked matter-of-factly about seeing ghosts around her house whenever she has a migraine coming on. “I don’t know whether, at such vulnerable times, I see more than is there,” she wrote, “or if things are there that normally I don’t see.”
In her new novel, “Beyond Black,” there isn’t a doubt about it. Hardworking psychic Alison Hart sees ghosts right, left and center, including her surprisingly vulgar “spirit guide” Morris.
It’s not always a pleasant experience, but it is, thanks to Mantel’s powers of invention, a thoroughly credible one. Even Alison’s assistant Colette, who hasn’t got a psychic bone in her body, believes in her employer’s phantasmal companions — and is careful not to step on Morris, once Alison has pointed out his position in the room.
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“Beyond Black” is a strange mix of the humorous, the gothic and the scrupulously documented. In skinny Colette (“Her mind was quick, shallow and literal, her character assertive”) and soft, hefty Alison (floating like some overfed, gown-enwrapped queen bee from psychic fair to psychic fair), Mantel has created a winningly odd couple.
But at 365 pages, she belabors their situation — Colette’s uncertainty about ditching her dud husband, Alison’s uncertainty about the facts of her grim girlhood — for longer than seems warranted.
Mantel has pulled off a long novel before (749 brisk, crowded pages about French Revolutionary chaos in “A Place of Greater Safety”). And at briefer length she has mastered tales of the outlandish and supernatural (“Fludd,” about a 17th-century alchemist-curate working odd magic on a 1950s English moorland village; “The Giant, O’Brien,” about a storytelling Irish giant pursued in 18th-century London by an anatomist who can’t wait to get hold of his bones).
“Beyond Black,” by contrast, feels in need of tightening. And its final revelations about Alison’s tortured girlhood are so gruesome as to shock you right out of the book.
That said, Mantel does a marvelous job of convincing you that Alison is exactly what she says she is, “a professional psychic, not some sort of magic act.” As such, she has to cope with all sorts of competing voices attempting to reach her from “airside.”
Colette, at one point, wishes she could arrange a “spam filter” for Alison’s mind, and grows exasperated at how trivial the concerns of some ghosts seem to be.
“But that’s because they’re trivial people,” Alison patiently explains. “You don’t get a personality transplant when you’re dead. You don’t suddenly get a degree in philosophy.”
Trivial or not, the constant babble of the dead wreaks havoc with Alison’s answering machine and disrupts her concentration while driving (hence Colette’s role as chauffeur as well as business partner).
To keep the babble to a minimum, Alison always tries to stay in new hotels, where fewer ghosts are likely to be hanging around. She and Colette even pick themselves up and move to a new and hopefully unhaunted Surrey suburb when Morris and his thuggish airside companions start striking an increasingly sinister tone.
The move doesn’t work out as well as they expect, however, and there’s a suggestion, as things go sour for them, that the whole country is going down with them. Here, Mantel depicts an England of unprecedented heat waves, toxic seepages and terrorist threats (not to mention Princess Di hysteria), as though she wants the tale of Alison and Colette to imply something larger about British national destiny. It’s difficult to see what, exactly, and any intended resonance falls short of the mark.
What does work is poor Alison, trying to put a gracious face on her peculiar situation, attempting to shield her followers from “the true nature of the place beyond black” (death), and doing the best she can to hang on to the help that practical Colette can give her in managing her unnervingly impractical world.
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org. He has been the Seattle Times book critic since 1998 and has also published four novels.