A ghost story, a condition-of-England novel and a meditation on the power of memory, Hilary Mantel’s funniest work of fiction is as revealing as a memoir

Written by John Self

Publication date and time: Published

‘I want to be normal,’ she thinks. ‘I want to be normal for half an hour.’ 

The thoughts are those of Alison Hart, a psychic who spends her life touring England’s commuter belt, circling London’s outskirts – ‘Orpington, Sevenoaks, Chertsey, Runnymede’ – and parking up in provincial halls in a glittery cocktail dress to deliver messages from the dead to people looking for answers. Alison is the hero, in every sense, of Hilary Mantel’s 2005 novel Beyond Black, a story of suburban dullness offset by dark magic. It is funny, frightening and full of sadness. 

Hilary Mantel has become a Booker legend, one of a select bunch of authors to win the prize twice, for Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring up the Bodies (2012), two of her chronicles of Thomas Cromwell. The third volume, The Mirror and the Light, was longlisted in 2020. But before all these – and earning her her first longlisting – came Beyond Black

It’s an odd sort of book. What exactly is it? ‘One of the greatest ghost stories in the language,’ said Philip Pullman. ‘A darkly humorous take on the enduring effects of childhood trauma,’ wrote Mslexia, while the Sunday Telegraph considered it to be ‘an intricately structured portrait of the secret dreads and desires of Middle England.’ It is any of these, and all of them: Beyond Black is both a mirror reflecting the reader back at themselves, and an indelible portrait of perfect eccentricity. It is also a book that – remarkably for a novel about ghosts – reflects elements of Mantel’s life: a self-portrait at multiple points. 

Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel

The role of the medium and the writer are not so dissimilar, pulling people real and imagined out of the air, reanimating the historical dead, as Mantel did so brilliantly in the Thomas Cromwell trilogy

At the centre is Alison, the warm, large-bodied (‘size twenty and not ashamed of it’) psychic around whom a world of spirits and punters revolves. Closest to her is Colette, Alison’s assistant and her polar opposite: thin, sceptical, cutting. (‘You are a size twenty-six. And you are ashamed of it.’) They share a home, in a sort of platonic marriage that protects them both from things outside. 

Beyond Black is first a psychologically acute analysis of human nature: how Alison’s customers see whatever they need and hear what they want to. Alison sometimes indulges in the stage psychic trick of cold reading – offering generalisations that can sound personal. ‘Gill, you’re the sort of woman – well, you’re a bit of a human dynamo, I mean, that’s how your friends describe you, isn’t it? Always on the go, morning, noon and night…’ (Gillian, all the while, is nodding.) 

But Alison does this only when the spirits that surround her won’t speak. She is unsentimental about her job – punters in the underheated church halls are ‘the trade’ – but takes it seriously. ‘I’m a professional psychic, not some sort of magic act.’ It is, in every way, her life. ‘It’s no good asking me whether I’d choose to be like this, because I’ve never had a choice.’  

So yes, Beyond Black is also a ghost story. The spirits in it are as real to the reader as they are to Alison Hart, larger than life even though they’re dead, and kicking up a hell of a stink. That still leaves room for ambiguity – Colette doesn’t hear or see them – and ambiguity is what fiction thrives on, that conflict between the reality on the page and the knowledge that it’s fiction. As readers, not knowing keeps us going. ‘They could believe in [Alison], and not believe in her, both at once.’

Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel

To her paying audience, Alison presents the spirit world (‘that eventless realm’) as a calm oasis, a world at room temperature, where ‘it’s Sunday, yet the shops are open, though no one needs anything’. Yet Alison’s smoothness is a mask, and there is no ambiguity in how Mantel presents Alison’s spirits. They are malicious, out to make trouble, particularly her main spirit, Morris: she needs him – he acts as a doorman for other spirits to approach Alison – but hates him. Morris is the ghost of a clown, a ‘foul-mouthed dwarf spook’ who makes Alison cry in the night with the memory of what he can do. 

It’s the memories that cause the trouble. What we learn is that Alison’s past is beyond black: her mother worked as a prostitute, and the spirits troubling Alison now were her clients, no better dead than when they were alive. ‘You don’t get a personality transplant when you’re dead.’ Colette puts it bluntly, as Alison tries to clear the choking smog of her childhood: ‘Al, face up to it. She had you molested. Probably sold tickets.’ 

Beyond Black then is a reanimation of childhood trauma, where Alison’s past haunts her present. ‘Ever since I was a little kid I’ve been trying to have nice thoughts,’ she says. ‘But how could I? My head was stuffed with memories.’ Mantel, in an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) in 2005, said ‘If [Alison] could really remember the past, if she could really nail it, maybe it would lose its power over her.’ So in the book, the past itself is a ghost, a perpetually present one. A character in William Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun says: ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past.’ For Alison – and for Mantel – it goes further: the past is lying in wait, disguised as the future. 

Mantel had her own ghosts. ‘In writing about Al,” she told CBC, ‘I was looking at perhaps what I might have become in default of education.’ She describes herself as having been ‘subject to a siege of the irrational as a child’. She lived in what she and her parents believed to be a haunted house, and she describes an encounter in her 2003 memoir Giving Up the Ghost.  

She is seven years old, playing in the garden, when ‘something makes me look up’. It is ‘the faintest movement, a disturbance, a ripple in the air. I can sense a spiral, a lazy buzzing swirl, like flies, but it is not flies’. She becomes aware of a presence, the height of a small child, that makes her feel ‘rinsed with nausea’. She allows for uncertainty – a projection of her family’s unhappiness? – but prefers even now to think it ‘a manifestation of pure evil’. If her mother hadn’t then allowed her to come into the house, ‘I think my heart might have stopped.’ 

Hilary Mantel at home, 2009

Beyond Black then is a reanimation of childhood trauma, where Alison’s past haunts her present. The past itself is a ghost, a perpetually present one

Mantel continued in adulthood to have this sensitivity. Giving Up the Ghost opens with another such vision, or visitation. ‘I am used to “seeing” things that aren’t there. Or – to put it in a way more acceptable to me – I am used to seeing things that “aren’t there”.’ In 2012, she told The New Yorker that ‘this other world, the next world, to me in my childhood seemed just as real as the world I was living in.’ 

But amid the homeless, ageless spirits, Beyond Black is also a novel about a specific place and time: a ‘condition of England’ novel, as Mantel put it. She seems to find the condition of England to be wanting: Alison and Colette circle the roundabouts of those dormitory towns – ‘the kind of place’, Mantel put it to CBC, ‘where nobody really comes from’ – to the slowly deflating sound of the decline of Britain. Industry has been replaced – this is in the 1990s, before the revolution of the internet – by sales, and Alison and Colette navigate smarmy salespeople offering cookie-cutter new-build homes with dementedly grandiose names (the Collingwood, the Frobisher, the Mountbatten), where it costs more to have windows that open, and room sizes can’t be confirmed because ‘some contraction could occur’. It’s a cheap Britain, flattened by routine, where people spend their weekends in garden centres. (‘On Sunday they went down the A322 to a shed supplier.’) 

But offsetting this dullness – and at times Beyond Black reads like Kafka’s Metamorphosis in its determinedly domestic treatment of the extraordinary – and the political calm of the era is the fact that this was a time of emotional turmoil in England, illustrated in the book by the death of Princess Diana in 1997 and ostentatious public grief that flowed outwards from it. ‘There was something gluttonous in their grief, something gloating,’ thinks Alison. Mantel herself was more forgiving, writing in 2017 that the ‘rotting flowers’ and ‘padded hearts … testified to the struggle of self-expression for individuals who were spiritually and imaginatively deprived, who released their own suppressed sorrow in grieving for a woman they did not know’. 

Hilary Mantel's memoir Giving Up The Ghost

There’s another sense, aside from the ghostly goings-on, in which Beyond Black may be Mantel’s most personal book. After all, the role of the medium and the writer are not so dissimilar, pulling people real and imagined out of the air, reanimating the historical dead as Mantel did so brilliantly in the Thomas Cromwell trilogy. ‘What is to be done with the lost, the dead,’ she wrote in Giving Up the Ghost, ‘but write them into being?’

Like Alison in Beyond Black, the novelist has drudgery behind the perceived glamour of the role: the putting one word in front of another, the four hundred decisions per page. If the psychic, as Mantel put it to CBC, offers people answers to the questions, ‘Who am I? Where do I fit?’, then so too does the novelist. ‘Someone could hand over a tenner at the door,’ thinks Colette, ‘and get so much hope in return.’ Mantel was not interested, she said, in whether the performances of mediums were true, but in whether they helped people. And to the New Yorker, she spoke of her writing talent in the tones of a psychic gift: ‘It’s just there. You don’t understand it, it’s out of your control, and it could desert you.’ 

‘Don’t imagine,’ Alison tells herself in Beyond Black, ‘because it is imagining that gives them the door to get in.’ We never know whether Alison’s ghosts are ‘real’ or the manifestation of her terrible childhood that will not go away. In Giving Up the Ghost, Mantel writes that ‘when you turn and look back down the years, you glimpse the ghosts of other lives you might have led.’ For her, the ghost life could have been a life of good health: in the seven years she lived in one house, she took 10,000 painkillers (‘a conservative estimate’); in an interview published two weeks before her death, she said, ‘When I was small, an unkind doctor called me ‘Little Miss Neverwell’. Now I’m Great Dame Neverwell.’ 

It could have been a life with children, which Mantel’s ill-health prevented her from having. ‘I wasn’t certain, and I’m still not certain, that I wanted children,’ she told the New Yorker. ‘What I wanted was the choice.’ In Giving Up the Ghost she writes of ‘my own unborn children, stretching out their ghost fingers to grab the pen.’ She calls her unborn child Catriona (‘I have a mental picture of her’), and she and her husband bought a large house, ‘the cupboards packed with linen and towels’, ready for people to stay, for visitors who never came, for children who were never born. 

In later life, she tells us in Giving Up the Ghost, Mantel and her husband moved to an apartment, in a converted 19th century lunatic asylum, complete with gargoyles that guard the roofs. By then, something had changed. Aren’t you afraid of ghosts? visitors would ask. She smiles and shakes her head. ‘Not I,’ she writes. ‘Not I: not here: not now.’

Hilary Mantel at her desk 2012

Beyond Black in Hilary Mantel's own words