Hilary Mantel describes this book as having turned out ‘more horrid than anything I could have imagined writing’, and who am I to argue. It is profoundly horrid. The title is perfectly chosen to encapsulate the horrid in this world and the next.
Brief plot summary: Alison, a successful stage psychic, teams up with a new business manager, Colette, and the novel follows the arc of their relationship. They could not be more different from each other: Alison, a large, benign, generous, colourful people-pleaser; Colette, a thin, critical, frugal, beige control-freak. Opposites attract, and their business partnership takes off, but opposites also repel of course, and the two women become increasingly irked by one another.
The story takes place in unlovely English suburbia, forming a grim social realist backdrop. The degraded outer London Green Belt is perfectly evoked: landscapes of suburban sprawl; motorways and retail parks; sinister wasteland, caravans and outbuildings; ugly new housing developments built on who knows what lies beneath; suspicious / hostile neighbours, and crime-infested families. The underside of supposedly leafy affluent south-east England (which I know all too well); an uneasy setting for an uneasy relationship.
The temporal dimension is even more uneasy: the backstory of Alison’s horrific childhood. Alison knows that she witnessed terrible things, and had terrible things done to her, but has blocked out what and by whom. She can receive messages from ‘the other side’ for her clients, but is unable to remember what happened in own her life.
Still worse is the spirit world, an entirely real dimension for Alison, whose inhabitants and figures from her past in particular just won’t leave her alone. The problem with the spirit world is it’s just the same as this one, only worse, and eternal. Bastards in this life are bastards in the beyond, only you can’t get rid of them. Alison’s business is giving reassuring and helpful messages to her clients from those who have passed; little do they know she is tormented day and night by her childhood abusers. The afterlife is endless boredom and utterly banal. There is no peace or escape or salvation. Your memories, grievances and damage and loss haunt you forever. The newly dead often don’t appear to realise they are actually dead (as a darkly amusing encounter with a confused Princess Diana shows), and it gets worse from there. Alison’s ‘spirit guide’ Morris and his pals are utterly revolting. Thing is, Alison’s real world living mother is just as bad. Beyond black indeed.
For all this, there is light in the darkness. There is a lot of dialogue and it’s where Mantel’s mordant wit shines through. Colette does excellent snark; the supporting cast of bewildered dead people get some great lines, and the purveyors of woo on the psychic fair circuit are nicely satirised. But the real light is Alison’s will to the ‘good act’. She is not a saintly or heroic figure, but she is compelled to balance the evil done to her by doing good, and she really tries. It’s not a moral tale but there is a message that it’s better to do the right thing in this life, because there isn’t going to be a reward after that.
There so much more to be said about how this amazingly multi-dimensional novel covers good and evil, family history, social history, social psychology, landscape, the condition of England, and the question of what happens after we die, which has nagged at humans since we began. This book kept expanding and growing after I’d finished it, strands coming together, images and references connecting. Then when I listened to an interview with the author, I realised there was even more to it. I don’t want to read it again because horrid; I do want to read it again because there is so much I missed.
For anyone who’s read this far, you may be interested in an in-depth discussion with Ms Mantel about this book, with some fascinating insights into what it’s all about, particularly where it draws on her personal experiences and her social views.
I might have to invite Hilary Mantel to my dinner party with Shirley Jackson and Patricia Highsmith. She won’t mind that they have both passed on.