Sunday, September 25, 2005

Beyond Black

First of all, Beyond Black is not the sequel to the novelization of Beyond Borders.  It’s a normal novel by Hilary Mantel, a British novelist famous for a searing memoir which I have not read, but which I am willing to bet is about a childhood filled with horrible abuse.  Beyond Black tells the story of Alison, who had a childhood filled with horrible abuse that emerges gradually over the course of the book.  Alison possesses psychic powers: she can see and speak with the dead, read minds, etc.  She makes her living as a medium, although she is in fact more of a large since she is hella fat.  The opening act of the book teams her with a bitter divorcee, Colette, who is tiny and thin and hard and vicious.  Colette’s business acumen and basic disregard for human kindness make her an excellent manager for Alison, who is too busy defending herself from the sieging spirits of the dead to really worry about the VAT.  Mantel does a remarkable job of making all this seem reasonable and tragic rather than thrilling and heroic – it’s not grand fantasy or horror (although many horrid moments creep through the book), it’s more like Beloved than Necroscope.
     So we have a few plots: Alison and Colette’s relationship (Colette eventually puts Al on a diet which causes Al to think something along the lines of “I am refused a piece of bread in my own house”), Alison’s relationship with her vile Spirit Guide Morris, Alison’s trajectory through the professional medium circuit, and Alison’s emerging past.  Mantel describes the other mediums with a remarkably light touch: yes, they are ethereal New-Age types named Natasha and Merlyn and so on, but they come off as carefully banal rather than wackily caricaturish.  The spirit guide Morris (It’s never 100% clear in what capacity he is acting as a guide) also comes off very finely; initially, I was inclined to like him since he seems to be an adorably lecherous Cockney, but as his relationship with Alison resolves he acquires an aura of banal menace.  By the end, when he and his mates start applying directly to Old Nick for “modifications” to their bodies he’s looking less like a lisping bootblack and more like a monster, which is after all what he is.  And Mantel’s portrait of Colette is so flawless that it’s almost pointless to describe it.
     It took me about three months, on and off, to finish the novel – not that it’s so terribly long, it just never really gripped me.  Nonetheless, you should all read it.  Perhaps those whose brains have not been dulled by the ceaseless violence of cheap vampire novels would find it more absorbing than I did.

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