In Beyond Black, Hilary Mantel takes the experience of a not entirely happy childhood and turns it into something extraordinary. "One of the greatest ghost stories in the language" declares Phillip Pullman on the cover of my copy - well, yes and no, I know why he describes it so, but I don't entirely agree. The book is certainly full of ghosts, but if ever anyone demonstrates that life is just a stage on the journey, as the spiritualists might say, then it is Mantel. Her characters live in a world where it takes an educated eye to be sure who is a ghost and who is living. After a telephone conversation with her dead mother-in-law Colette is not at all certain, although she comes to resent the dead fiercely in her job as PA to medium Alison Hart. Alison doesn't resent them, but she often wishes they would leave her alone, particularly her spirit guide, Morris, who likes to go off down the pub and brings his disreputable friends back to torment the neighbours.
Colette joined Alison in those days when the comet Hale-Bopp, like God's shuttlecock, blazed over the market towns and dormitory suburbs, over the playing fields of Eton, over the shopping malls of Oxford, over the traffic-crazed towns of Woking and Maidenhead...As Alison works her way round the towns within reach of the M25, visiting "crumbling civic buildings" and nasty hotels, Mantel mercilessly anatomises the spiritual paucity of the late twentieth century. Both women have a troubled relationship with food, Colette seeking to control diet as a means of controlling both their lives, overweight Alison meanwhile seeking comfort from her memories and her more immediate persecution by Morris and his friends, the "Fiends" as she calls them. Prompted by Colette, the story of Alison's appalling childhood gradually unfolds, recorded on cassette tapes that acquire extra voices in the background, regurgitated as painfully as fake ectoplasm at a Victorian seance. Rather than drawing the women together, as you might expect, the revelations seem to alienate them, their early expectations that a degree of mutual support will be possible within the employer/assistant relationship deteriorating into bickering as Colette grows more and more assertive, while Alison lapses into inertia.
Some of what makes this book remarkable is the sheer ordinariness of the spirit world, the petty concerns and confusions of the dead. As a reader one doesn't question the reality of Alison's experience with her vicious tormentors and, in a sense, there is no need to do so: if the ghosts that haunt us are our own constructs, they have sufficient reality to destroy all but the most resilient. Despite its horrors - and be warned, they are a constant presence - Beyond Black is an absorbing read; Alison, though demanding company, becomes a person who holds the attention. Mantel's ear for dialogue is finely-tuned, and the set pieces of her performances as a medium are tremendous writing. This isn't a ghost story for curling up with in front of the fire, but it is the most real I have ever read.