What happens after we die? In the half-nightmare, half-comic world of Beyond Black, spirits "airside" are often more concerned about the cakes and marmite sandwiches they miss than with the secrets of the universe and are as likely to reminisce about kitchen fittings as about lost love. Beyond Black truly is a world of its own, a place where the supernatural is manifestly real, where tarot readings and crystal balls are legitimate tools of revelation. It is a world that operates according to strict rules, where each medium comes equipped with a spirit guide and procedures for getting the job done -- that is, the job of turning a profit from the ever-credulous living.
Booker Prize-winning author Hilary Mantel constructs this supernaturally-charged world skillfully and with precise detail, intertwined with an equally incisive depiction of suburban England. One can therefore easily lose sight of the fact that the supernatural is employed here in the service of metaphor, specifically in the personal journey of Alison Hart, a medium whose gifts thrill audiences across southern England. Alison's popularity is at least partly due to her kindness and sensitivity to clients, and her comforting stage presence.
But Alison's serene demeanor conceals the truth: she is, in fact, from hell. Beneath her sweet smile are memories -- repressed and otherwise -- of a childhood that would give Jack the Ripper pause. As the story unfolds and Alison begins to recollect more of her past, her present circumstances are increasingly explained: in particular, her propensity to attract "fiends" -- spirits of the men who molested her -- as spirit companions. Try as she might, Alison cannot seem to escape the fiends... nor can she quite recall her childhood. She is hugely overweight because she fears that if she wasn't the fiends would consume her, cause her to disappear. Alison's supernatural experience is therefore an exact -- one might dare say obvious -- mirror of her haunted psychological state.
Saving the story from being too obvious are the dry subtlety of Mantel's exploration of character and the elegant complexity of the metaphor. Alison is a complicated character, and the circumlocutions of her memories and past are rife with nuances. Her drug-addicted mother, for example, has been a toweringly evil figure in her life, but simultaneously she is tiny, petty, even amusing in her ridiculous ineptitude. Alison's loathsome spirit guide and former molester, Morris, is equally tiny in his goals and preoccupations -- too puny, in the end, to evoke feelings more heated than disgust. Yet through the immense evil of their actions, these insignificant people have fractured Alison's psyche, and somehow she must navigate and come to terms with this paradox in order to free herself.
Alison teams up with the business-savvy Colette, who is a contrast to her in nearly every way: vanishingly thin, sharp-witted, and ultimately mean-spirited. In a fit of rage, Colette leaves her dull husband and seeks relief for her feelings of emptiness in the spirit world. What begins as a successful business partnership and friendship devolves into bitter entanglement, a change that is ostensibly brought on by Alison's supernatural demons -- but may in reality have its roots in Colette's own, less substantial demons, which she refuses to confront. Instead she projects her unhappiness onto Alison. In doing so, Colette is echoing Alison's abusers of the past, in a dynamic of intimate contempt. The relationship with Colette is at once clarifying for Alison and a contrast to her inner journey--demonstrating what happens when, rather than discarding one's demons, one chooses to embrace them.
One of the persistent motifs of Beyond Black is the triviality that pervades the spirit world: the idea that the dead are just as preoccupied with the temporal as they were in life. With understated wit, Mantel winds together sharp observation of human nature with a satire of contemporary England, offering passages like this one about the experience of dying:
Al said, what you should understand is this: when people go over, they don't always know they've gone... Sometimes they think they're in a corridor, lying in a trolley, and nobody comes. They start to cry, but still nobody comes. You see, she said, they've actually gone over, but they think it's just the National Health. (pages 138-139)
But the satire is only a surface, an entertaining diversion that masks harder-hitting observations: that in a vast, indifferent world, humans seem fragile and inconsequential. Faced with death, they will crave tea and sandwiches. It is an idea that can evoke contempt for humanity or a deep compassion -- extremes represented by the divergent personalities of Alison and Colette.
Alison is the epitome of a broken human being, someone who has been wounded too deeply to ever heal. Yet Beyond Black offers in its title a double-edged metaphor -- both for the spirit world, and for the place where Alison might find, if not healing, then at least a flicker of light.