By Hilary Mantel
ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS
‘Beyond Black’ was first published in 2005, four years before ‘Wolf Hall’, the first of Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell novels. The Cromwell trilogy is, of course, the work that made Mantel stratospherically famous: the first two installments each won the Booker Prize, and they are widely considered to be a masterpiece. I certainly think that they are – I have been captivated by the Cromwell trilogy since I read ‘Wolf Hall’; I think it is one of the best works of fiction I have ever read, full stop.
But I’ve never read anything else Mantel has written (my failure, I know). I wasn’t even super aware of the fact that she had written things besides the Cromwell Trilogy – I had her slated in my mind as a sort of one-hit-wonder (ignorant and idiotic, I know). However, her other works have been often mentioned in the coverage after her death; in particular, one called ‘Beyond Black’ was repeatedly singled out for praise.
However, the praise was always tinged with a sort of emotional ambivalence that I didn’t understand, as though the reviewers were made to feel vulnerable while reading it. Slate’s Laura Miller, for example, wrote, “The best and most acerbically Mantellian of these pre-Cromwell novels is 2005’s ‘Beyond Black’.” When Fay Weldon reviewed it in The Guardian, she wrote, “[Mantel is] witty, ironic, intelligent and, I suspect, haunted. This is a book out of the unconscious, where the best novels come from.” Everyone loved it, but everyone was also slightly afraid of it, too.
I was confused by this at first, until I asked some people who had read it. Everyone said the same thing: “This is one of the best trauma novels I’ve ever read.” That’s the crux of it, of course: ‘Beyond Black’ is a trauma novel. Trauma novels are tricky. To be successful, the author must convince the reader of the trauma itself: they must effectively communicate pain. However, too much focus on the pain and the characters get lost. The novel risks becoming alienatingly grim, or, worse, torture-pornographic. It’s a hard line to walk.
‘Beyond Black’s’ pain belongs to Al. Al (short for Alison) is a medium. She can communicate with the dead; in fact, she can’t escape them. They crowd her, speaking to her, messing with her electronics, tripping her and taking her things. Some of the dead are benign, lost souls that only need attention and guidance. But the dead are merely the living, on the other side. And just as some of us aren’t kind, some of them aren’t either. The dead who crowd Alison, they aren’t kind. They taunt and torment her; they move her things, hide or break them. They interfere with the functioning of machines in her home. They assault her friends and drive them away. Worst of all, they remind her of something, something terrible which has happened to her but which she cannot quite remember.
And it’s not just the dead: Alison is surrounded by unkindness from the living, too. Even her business partner Colette (the person closest to her in the world), is almost sadistically mean to Al, especially about her weight. Al works constantly, touring the country and putting on shows, working for private clients, all in an attempt to keep ahead of the memories pursuing her. But it’s not working: the spirits are crowding in, and Al is starting to drown.
If I’m making ‘Beyond Black’ sound trite or formulaic, that is my failing, not the book’s. In fact, ‘Beyond Black’ is strikingly non-trite; on the contrary, it is bleak, almost numbingly dark. As someone (a fan) warned me when I started it, “Try reading it quickly, so you don’t get bogged down in the gloom.” Al is like a woman struggling in quicksand: desperate to keep her head above water, the most she struggles, the faster she sinks.
In the hands of a writer as good as Mantel, Al’s fear and despair are claustrophobic, stifling. This effect is accentuated by Al’s own refusal to remember why she’s traumatized – she is in full flight from something she won’t turn and face.
Mantel’s decision to use spirits as metaphor emerges here as a particularly canny one. Spirits, unlike trauma, pursue – Al is literally followed by the dead that cling to her, the malicious dead. Like trauma, however, the spirits are invisible to most people. Thus, Al is tormented by forces only she can see. This turns out to be a pretty magnificent metaphor for trauma itself. Mantel has literalized traumatic suffering: it is the ghost of our past pain pursuing us. Normal grief dies a healthy death, moves on; trauma dogs our steps, invisible to others, tripping us up and disordering our lives.
I understand better now the emotionally cautious admiration for ‘Beyond Black’. I loved it, but it was hard to read it. Al elicited empathy from me. I felt defeated by her pain; I wanted to help her stay afloat but, of course, I couldn’t. I particularly longed to defend her against the living, the people around her who sensed her vulnerability and responded with cruelty.
This is Mantel’s great gift, I think: writing characters who feel real to her readers. It was, of course, the most striking aspect of her Cromwell trilogy: the salience of Cromwell himself. When I finished ‘The Mirror and the Light’, I felt like someone I loved had died. I had lost all sense that I was reading a work of fiction – the story had become emotionally real for me. I had a milder but similar reaction to ‘Beyond Black’: I was absorbed, connected to Al, worried for her. Her pain had been effectively communicated to me.
I don’t know exactly how Mantel accomplishes this. It feels like a magic trick, every time. I pick up a book she’s written, and then immediately forget it’s a book. It’s something in the quality of her writing, how plain and perfect it is. I’m so happy to discover that there is more Mantel to read. I had associated her so strongly with her most famous protagonist, and it’s a pleasure to learn that there are other protagonists to care about. ‘Beyond Black’ will not have the same magnitude of effect for me as the Cromwell Trilogy, but, frankly, that is not a reasonable standard to which to hold any book. I did love it, and I respected it enormously. I thought it was subtle, sad and lovely and brutal all at the same time, but in a good way. In the best way.