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Hilary Mantel describes the day her family history started to unravel, revealing a different man to the father she remembered.
On September 16, 2003, as I was leaving my flat to go up to London for a radio interview, I picked up with the post a letter forwarded by my agent. Something about it said, "OPEN ME." I glanced at the signature: a stranger's. I read the contents. I dropped the page into my notes for the interview. As I travelled to London, I felt that, though my body was on the train, my mind was radically displaced. "So," my interviewer said, "… your family. Your parents split up when you were 11. You haven't seen or heard of your father - is this correct - since 1963?" I touched the letter, which I had put down, like a talisman, by the microphone. I was able to say: "Not until this morning."
A few months earlier, I had published a memoir called Giving Up the Ghost. It was an account of a working-class childhood in a moorland village in Derbyshire: an account of how, with the help of an ambitious mother and a meritocratic education system, I severed myself from my roots. It is not a remarkable story in itself, but I thought my childhood worth recalling because it was distinguished by a pervasive quality of fear. We lived, I am almost convinced, in a haunted house. The dead whistled in the walls; drawers contained photographs of babies who had failed to thrive, of a little girl burnt up in her own nightdress. There were no pictures of my paternal grandparents, who had both died before I was born. The people around me were old; they talked familiarly of people from the last century, as if at any moment they might come in.
My mother and my father Henry were unhappy, and I knew this from the age of four. My mother fell in love with another man and, when I was 11, in 1963, we moved with him to another town, and changed our names. My father melted into the ether. I was not forbidden to mention his name, but knew I must not. By an act of will, by an act of my mother's will, he had been erased from history. He was a tall slim man in a tweed jacket, and in the pockets he kept cigarettes and sweets; together we had read our library books, and constructed model aeroplanes from kits. As time went on, I remembered, better than I remembered his face, the things he owned: his jazz LPs, his cricket glove. I remembered the trilby hat and overcoat he wore to commute to his job as a clerk, and the travelling chess set he kept in his pocket, its cover (I believed) made of burgundy leather. I remembered what he had taught me: how to read a race card; the days of the week in French.
Years passed. My French vocabulary multiplied. I was frightened of my stepfather; perhaps we brought out the worst in each other. I grew up. Should I try to trace Henry? I wanted to show him things: my exam certificates. I wanted, above all, to show him my face, and to see his. But how do you know what situation you might be blundering into? My younger brothers barely recalled him, did not think of him as their father; there was no one to talk to about him. As I became a published writer, I consoled myself with the thought that, if he wanted to, he could find me. When doctors asked about my medical inheritance, I said, "I do not know if my father is dead or alive." I was not able to have children myself, and so my history seemed a chronicle of disappearance and loss. I was a novelist in possession of an unfinished sentence, a narrative that tailed off into white space.
We want, I think, to make our stories whole; however much love is offered by adoptive parents, we need to make sense of ourselves, genetically. It was May 2003 when my memoir was published, carrying with it perhaps, an implicit plea for information. The writer of the letter I received that September day, just as I was leaving for my interview, said that she had read my memoir, and had realised that "the Henry I knew was also your father".
Knew him? How? I was impatient for the truth and the whole truth. The writer, Christine, was a woman of my own age, living near Manchester. In 1971, my lost father had married her widowed mother. "I always knew he had a daughter named Hilary from his first marriage… I have no idea what, if anything, you know - or want to know - about Henry's later life… My sisters and I would willingly try to help fill in some gaps for you. However, if you would prefer to leave things as they are then we will fully understand and respect your wishes."
My mind snatched at the facts and quickly constructed some from between the lines. There must be three girls, at least. Were any of them Henry's children? Had I sisters? And was he alive or dead? Between the lines was the suggestion that he would not be any part of this information exchange. Dead, then. Home from London, I e-mailed the writer - rather in awe of her graceful, tactful letter, wondering what I would have written if the situation had been reversed. Who are you, I wondered - a shadowy stepsister, living unknown but half-knowing me? Will we be friends? A few days later, she sent by e-mail a photograph of my father. His face swam out of the darkness of the screen. My first reaction was incredulity. When did he grow that silly-looking beard? Then I traced, or thought I did, the features of my brothers; the younger boy's hairline, the elder boy's jaw.
Through e-mails, letters, phone calls, we pieced the story together. Henry had no more children of his own, but had been stepfather to a family of six - four girls, two boys. My informant, Christine, had been ready to go to university when he joined the family; in any case, she said, he had never been a substitute father to the children, he had always been just "Henry". What had he done with the rest of his life? Not much. Had I been right not to contact him? Yes; his new wife would not have welcomed it. Did he still like his jazz, did he ever go to Paris, did he still follow the cricket and the horses? Yes, no, maybe. He died in 1997: cancer. More photographs arrived, by this new family's kindness: Henry in wedding suits, wearing a stiff smile, and his stepdaughters - each glowing bride in turn - on his arm.
When I began my memoir, I meant it as a project of reconciliation. I had hoped my mother would read it before my publishers did, and that she would understand what my own understanding of the past had been. Our talk might wander into forbidden areas. We might see that what was there was not so terrible after all. We might sit down with the dead, and trap them, for once, into some civilised conversation, instead of enduring their sniggering and whispering in the room next door.
So much time had passed, and from where I was standing now I could see that a lot of families had been even stranger than mine.
This project was a failure, largely. My mother did not want to talk about the book or anything in it - at least, not to me. So I was unable to tell her about my discoveries; my father, to her, remains in the realms of the unspeakable.
In time, Christine and I met. The family had been through their archives. Papers were delivered to me; birth and death certificates. In a hotel room, the night of our meeting, I combed through them. Here were his army records. He had been in West Africa, I knew that: but India too. His Certificate of Service told me, "Corporal Thompson is a quiet and industrious worker of pleasant personality and appearance. He is honest, sober and trustworthy… extremely conscientious at his work and requires little or no supervision."
Well, I thought, I hope anyone could say the same of me. My nerdy dad! I flipped over the pages. His eyes are grey, his hair brown, his complexion fresh; on the back of his right hand is a scar. He is recommended to any civilian employer "wanting a man to do confidential work, where initiative and accurate work is required". His height is five foot five and a half inches, his weight is 110 lbs. What? My eyes mist over. More like an acrobat than a father… where is he, the "tall man" I remember? My nerdy little dad. Out of a yellowed envelope fell baby pictures of me. So he kept something. But did he know me? After I was a chortling toddler in a sun bonnet, after I was a 10-year-old, shy and thin as a ghost, did he ever give me a thought? He saw you on television, Christine said. It was 1990, the Booker Prize dinner; the year of AS Byatt's Possession. And what did he say? He said, "I think that is my daughter."
Among his army papers, I find his record of leave for 1951. I see the dates when I must have been conceived. That, says a friend later, is more information than I, personally, would want. But I want to know everything, you see; I grab the least fragment of information and try to fit it in to the void that is my need to have two parents. At home, I play the tape he has left behind, of his favourite music: raw, yearning, raucous blues. And into the top drawer of my desk I slip the chess-set, the most astonishing relic of all; the travelling chess set, with which I used to play when I was too young to learn the moves. Christine and I met; she reached into her bag; she put it on the table: "Is this the one?" I picked it up. It has survived the years and if you turn it upside down, the burgundy colour is rich and deep. But it is not made of leather - only of cardboard, cheap cardboard, with a simulated grain.
Since my memoir appeared, some people have tried to persuade me that early memories are not authentic, that they cannot be; that they are fictions, only dimly related to the truth. I don't know why people want to believe this - perhaps they find it comforting, as it allows them to scuttle away from confrontation with the facts of the gruesome abuse visited on some babies and young children. They prefer to think of children as blank slates, with nothing much written on them before they reach "the age of reason".
But I believe strongly in the power and persistence of memory. Disagreement in accounts of family events is often due to "point of view" - which, as every storyteller knows, is vital to what is reported. Because you recall things differently from your sibling, it doesn't mean either of you is wrong. Freud, with his passion for archaeology, influenced the way we think of memories; we imagine we have to dig for them. My instinct is that this is not true. In our brains, past and present co-exist; they occupy, as it were, adjoining rooms, but there are some rooms we never enter. We seem to have lost the keys; but they can be retrieved. If you say to someone "Tell me five things about you when you were five years old," then from many you will elicit a few bald and fumbling facts. But if you ask them, "What did you have to eat when you were five?" the effect, after a moment, is quite different. The adult slips away and the child appears, wide-eyed and gleeful, reporting back to you with sensual precision.
My memory, I agree, has played some tricks on me. A child cannot estimate the height of a man; and somehow, in my middle childhood, I stopped looking at Henry. I loved my mother, my loyalties lay with her and I stopped looking at him when the marriage went sour. Time took him away, his stepfamily gave him back.
Great as the powers of memory are, solid information is better: pen and ink, army stamps. I rather miss the man who - I now know - completed a 10-mile forced march on April 6, 1945. Whose throwing of practice grenades attracts a terse "good". Who has completed his street-fighting training, his march by night, but inexplicably fails his light machine gun trials on a day when visibility is poor. Never mind, I say to myself, I'm sure I would have done the same.
When I was struggling, downcast, and afraid, when my own future was lost in mist, I would have liked to have known the forecast of the officer who, on July 9, 1945, wrote, of my tiny father, "Is keen and hardworking. Should do well."
Hilary Mantel on Richard Hughes
T H E F O X I N T H E A T T I C was the offspring of writer’s block: or, as those in the trade might prefer to phrase it, the child of creative silence. Published in 1961, it was the first volume of what Richard Hughes described as “a sort of War and Peace” for the twentieth century: a huge work to be called “The Human Predicament.”
Richard Hughes occupied a singular position in English letters. His 1929 novel A High Wind in Jamaica had been a best seller and a critical success on both sides of the Atlantic, and had introduced the world to an unsentimental but intensely poetic sensibility. His oblique, pared-down story about children in the hands of pirates had challenged pious assumptions about childhood sexuality, and had been denounced by one anonymous critic as “horrible and cruel and disgusting.”
Others, however, had been dazzled by its perceptiveness and the freshness of its writing. Images of power and wit seemed to bubble from the author’s pen. This was a false impression. Hughes wrote slowly, and with great labor, drafting and redrafting, testing each phrase for balance and euphony, selecting each word for its optimum range of meanings and its penumbral allusiveness. It was not until 1938 that a new novel appeared. In Hazard met a more mixed reception. A story of a disabled ship caught up in a hurricane, it invited and perhaps just survived comparisons with Conrad.
Ford Madox Ford called it “a masterpiece,” but Virginia Woolf wrote “on the one hand there’s the storm, on the other the people. And between them there’s a gap, in which there’s some want of strength.” The book was an evident metaphor of its author’s own spiritual struggles, intense and unresolved, and its long gestation showed what patient and desolating labor it cost him to produce fiction at all.
Richard Hughes was born in 1900 in Caterham, Surrey, in safe-as-houses prosperity and gentility. His father was a civil servant who traveled each morning by train to his work in the Public Records Office. His mother Louisa—who had been brought up in Jamaica—concerned herself with children, servants, and the social round. But his sister and brother both died in early childhood, and his father contracted tuberculosis.
Hughes would always remember the day of his father’s death, when “I broke like a dam, water and grief bursting out of me.”
He would be haunted, too, by what happened immediately afterwards:
Next morning my mouth still tasted salt, and my gummy eyes would hardly open. There was a load of grief on the still house like a heavy fall of snow. And then—I—forgot.
It was mid-morning and I wanted to ask Father something, so I scampered up to his bedroom, burst open the door. Under the stiff folds of the sheet lay what—what looked like a not very skilful wax copy of him. How on earth had I forgotten, who loved him so much?
Hughes’s biographer, Richard Perceval Graves (Richard Hughes, Andre Deutsch, 1992), believes that the moment was decisive, leaving the child with unresolved shock and guilt. Hughes would grow up physically robust, almost a caricature of the “manly” man, an adventurer in the High Atlas and on the open sea. But emotionally he was vulnerable, suffering a series of nervous collapses during his early life.
He was a child of acute and almost morbid sensitivity. His sense impressions were visceral and overwhelming: “A crowded herbaceous border in June used to make me very nearly sick out-loud.” He decided to become a writer at the age of six. A conventional education—public school, Oxford— would do nothing to dampen his unconventional sensibility.
He had his share of romanticism—he was a Welshman by adoption, and called himself Diccon—but he had an original and rigorous turn of mind which made him interrogate the commonplace, reject the trivial, and avoid the ready-made response.
His quotidian world was poignant, potent, dangerous. Two world wars divided his life. He was already a cadet in training when the 1918 armistice was signed. His generation of schoolboys had expected to go into the trenches and live six months; they were shocked to find themselves with another sixty years to fill. Hughes spent World War II as an Admiralty bureaucrat, and began to store up the material he would use in “The Human Predicament.” He intended it as a complex and expansive work, but how expansive, no one could say. What he wanted, he explained, was “a marriage, in epic form, of the two kinds of storytelling, the fictional narrative, where no one knows what will happen next, and the History everybody knows.” There were precedents, he added, “beginning with Homer himself.” He wrote, “Success and failure depend on the one thing only: on whether I was born with adequate gifts. For I certainly intend to stint neither effort nor time.”
Augustine, the wealthy young Englishman at the center of the narrative, is a semiautobiographical character, a shining, heedless version of the author, with few dark thoughts and a habit of not noticing things. It is as if, in creating Augustine, Hughes has written himself a prescription for an easier life; and yet Augustine’s sheltering wealth and natural amiability leave him open to perilous illusions. Augustine imagines his generation as a new kind of human being, singularly unhaunted by guilt; it refuses the notion of sin, since Freud has explained it away. A blithe atheist, Augustine will never understand the anguished spirituality of his blind German cousin, Mitzi, with whom he falls in love just as she falls in love with Christ. An optimist, a healthy hedonist, he leaves England in search of “the new Germany with its broad-minded peaceloving spirit and its advanced ideas,” and finds a sick and shattered society ripe for Hitler.
The early part of the novel offers a social panorama of the world of Augustine’s youth. There is the small Welsh town of Flemton with its mad, malicious inhabitants, a country house in Dorset with its masters and servants. The latter, especially, are far from caricature: the butler Wantage deploys a suitable “tone of deferential benevolence” when talking to the “Gentry,” while sticking to his belief that they are “stupid sods.” Augustine’s pompous brother-in-law Gilbert inducts us into the world of political party in-fighting, and his niece Polly opens up for us the secret, convoluted world of childhood imagination. Polly is one of the novel’s great successes, as is German uncle Otto, with his wooden leg, who reads aloud Thomas à Kempis as if it were “musketry instructions.”
But the most remarkable and powerful sections of the book concern the Nazis’ rise to power. The writer who decides to mix fictitious characters with real ones takes a risk: if he is too timid and respectful, the real people will lie inert on the page, flattened by the weight of his research. Hughes buried himself in reading, but set a premium on firsthand accounts; his research would be applauded by historians when the book appeared,
because he had managed to turn up hidden material. He visited his own German relatives near Augsburg and immersed himself in both their family life and their private papers.He had many private conversations with Helene Hanfstengl, who had been a friend of Hitler’s in the early 1920s, and she gave him an unpublished account of her experiences.
Hughes has a great deal of hard information to convey to the reader before he can get his plot underway. But his portrait of Hitler is electric: from his first appearance, “mis-en-scène by Hieronymus Bosch,” it is poised between the comic and the macabre, a portrait of a two-bit Machiavelli, a cream-cakeeating screecher, a solipsist who will devour the world.
The book came into being with great difficulty. With such a large, long-term project on his hands, Hughes needed to keep his family afloat financially, and imagined he would do this with reviews, essays, and occasional pieces. But when he began to write, bureaucrat’s prose came out. His war service at the Admiralty had depleted his imaginative resources. For an Englishman of his time and status, the necessities of life included servants and private-school fees, and at times he relied almost wholly on the family income of Frances, his wife. Through years of hard writing he struggled on, often plunging into depression; there were dotty attempts at self-sufficiency at the Welsh seaside, and overdrafts, and near-breakdowns, and finally the salvation of an income from screenwriting.
Hughes was not an author who could plan ahead. “For me,”he said, “writing can never be, like a piece of carpentry, done from a blue-print: it has to grow—like a tree.” He writes in short chapters, many of which are self-contained, miniaturized works of art. Some went through fifty drafts. There were times when most of his daily work was deletion. He would claim to have done 50,000 words, which would “progress” to 10,000.
There was no particular reason, except his publisher’s natural impatience, for the first volume of “The Human Predicament” to end as it does: with Augustine throwing his possessions into a Gladstone bag and quitting Germany just as the door of a Carmelite convent closes behind Mitzi. But it is a strong ending which leaves the reader with huge expectations. When and where will Augustine grow up, and what will it cost him? How long will his innocence protect him in the dangerous years ahead?
Central to Hughes’s ambition for “The Human Predicament” was a fusion of intimate, invented narrative with the “History everybody knows,” but that kind of history becomes more elusive the harder one looks at it. Hughes’s research must have shown him the large, drifting cloud-masses between one “fact” and another. Hitler materializes as a demonic lightning flash from one of these clouds, less a personality than a rudimentary flicker against a dark sky. Augustine too is a half-fledged personality, a bundle of instincts at war with a conventional moral code that he has partly internalized but not worked through for himself. Still unconscious of what is going on in the more distant rooms of his mind, how can he begin to guess at what is happening in the unvisited upper rooms of his German family’s castle? The end of this first part of his story finds him unaware of the immediate perils that have beset him, protected by Mitzi’s courage and superior discernment.
He is unaware of the identity and even the existence of the Fox in the Attic, trailing the feral stench of death.
H.I L A RY MA N T E L
T H E W O O D E N S H E P H E R D E S S was the child of success. It was the second volume of a projected work called “The Human Predicament,” a fictional account, at once panoramic and finely detailed, of the years between the First and Second World Wars, as seen through the eyes of Richard Hughes: upperclass Englishman and adoptive Welshman, sailor, screenwriter and poet, conscientious father and dutiful son, blocked novelist, best-selling success story. When The Fox in the Attic was published in 1961, the critic Goronwy Rees wrote, “There are few living writers of whom one would say that they had genius, but somehow it seems the most natural thing in the world to say about Richard Hughes.”
The central character of the novel was Augustine Penty-Herbert, a guileless and likable young man, born with a “silver millstone hung around his neck” in the shape of a large house and estate in Wales. His sister Mary has an idyllic country life in Dorset, and a less-than-idyllic marriage to Gilbert, a Liberal Member of Parliament. In 1923, Augustine visited relatives in Bavaria and fell in love with Mitzi, his blind cousin. He had proved curiously unable to do anything about it, and was baf-fled and outraged when Mitzi elected to live out her life in the seclusion of a Carmelite convent. As a heedless atheist, he had not been able to comprehend her vocation; as an Englishman of the “jolly decent fellow” type, he had been unable to sense the vast collective malaise of a defeated and demoralized nation.
The final pages found him stumbling through the snow, his possessions in a bag, on his way to “anywhere anywhere anywhere!”
He fetches up in prohibition America, without a passport. Between books, he has spent a winter in Paris, then traveled to Saint-Malo, where he has been robbed at the dockside, hit over the head, and dropped through the open hatch of a ship about to sail. When they discover him the crew make him a “rum-running Able Seaman” who will land his contraband under fire.
This is not the Augustine we left at the end of The Fox in the Attic. Hughes evidently saw the need to make him into a tougher character from the start. It is a weakness that so much decisive action occurs off the page, but the early chapters of The Wooden Shepherdess contain some brilliant, focused, effective writing: a car chase, deep-diving into a lake to fish up jars of illicit liquor, a storm in the woods where “the lightning was all around them, violet and blue and yellow—you smelled the discharge as it leaped from tree to tree.” Hughes is at his finest in describing action, and at his most creepily nasty when he describes sex. In these chapters Augustine loses his virginity, though the whole business is fraught with misunderstanding; he hasn’t grasped the fact that the American girls he meets consent to anything up to but not including penetration: so “Yes” means “No.”
For Hughes, here and elsewhere in his work, girls are knowing and predatory, whereas the adolescent boy is passive and naive. (As a product of the English public-school system, he might have been expected to know better.) But Augustine’s bewilderment is convincing. He sleeps with an experienced, willing girl, and compares the experience to “cold porridge.” He rejects a girl called Ree, an underage child who offered him both friendship and love. It is a piece of pure and scrupulous cruelty. He has done the “right thing,” but her betrayed face haunts him.He is left in mental turmoil: curiously ashamed, yet asking himself why he should be. The episode will linger in the reader’s mind uncomfortably, and may have lingered in Hughes’s own, for when Ree reappears many pages later she is dismissed smartly from the narrative before she can open her mouth. The second part of the book is “The Meistersingers,” lengthy, structurally complex, and with many narrative strands. For the first time, Hughes takes us into the world of the English urban poor, and introduces us to Norah, a child in the slums of Coventry. (Later in the book, Hughes writes precisely and evocatively of the world of the Welsh miners, whose plight leads Britain to the General Strike of 1926.) In Germany, we follow the progress of the blind girl Mitzi in her convent. Over his long years of work on “The Human Predicament” Hughes had become increasingly religious, and when one of his own daughters showed interest in joining a contemplative community he reacted with characteristic thoroughness and plunged into a course of reading in mysticism. This paid off; in a novel so energetic, so worldly, so pungent, it is a revelation to find a delicate elucidation of a point which escapes many people: “Even Carmel’s Enclosure itself . . . is separate not from but deeply within the created world, like a beating heart.”
However, it is German politics which form the beating heart of The Wooden Shepherdess. We take up the story at a low point for the Nazis—Hitler is imprisoned, the party is banned, its presses are silenced, its servants scattered. But Hitler’s trial makes headlines. Even the English newspapers learn how to spell his name. His imprisonment lasts only thirteen months. Hughes is blunt about what he takes to be the secret of Hitler’s leadership: it is not really leadership, but a kind of foul, calculated mimicry. Quite coldly and opportunistically, he works out the desires of the lowest of his followers. Then he articulates them before they can do it themselves, and does it with a touch of inspired madness; he pushes this articulation till it teeters on the verge of the ludicrous, but draws back from the brink. He sees the worst, plays to it; supremely egotistical, he can occupy no position but that of “cock-of-the-dunghill.”Augustine’s cousin Franz falls increasingly under Hitler’s spell, but we tend to lose sight of the intriguing German cousins, while Augustine himself is absent for much of the narrative. By now Hughes is juggling an enormous cast. He is trying to do something of immense technical difficulty—to move between the very large and the very small scale, to dramatize the workings of international capitalism and yet keep us involved with the minutiae of individual lives. A godlike eye and an inner eye must watch together, and the threads connecting the players must be drawn tight: at the same time, each of those players proudly and strenuously asserts his own individuality, and jostles for his space in the story. The Wooden Shepherdess is a novel which asks enormous questions.
“I see increasingly as I get older,” Hughes wrote, “the great question-mark written on everything by the great questioner.”The final part of the novel is “Stille Nacht.” It takes us to 1934, and Hitler’s elimination of rivals in “the Night of the Long Knives.” There is a diversion to Morocco, where Augustine’s adventures replicate those of Hughes himself in 1928.
Like his character, Hughes did not plan ahead much when he wrote. Fate was not just allowed, but encouraged to take a hand. His work’s motifs were plucked from his own dreamlife, and his characters’ hopes and fears reflected his own; at seventy, he was still able to summon into consciousness a childhood foible, a childhood nightmare, reattribute it to a character, and make it work for him. It was as if he had observed everything, processed everything, forgotten nothing. His observation can be cold, and prevents him from falling into sentimentality; his descriptive prose is exact, textured, fresh.Hughes was a slow writer, a perfectionist, and The Wooden Shepherdess was not ready until 1973. It was not kindly received. It came into a world quite different from that which had applauded The Fox in the Attic, the first part of the grand design. Readers and critics were now of an irreverent disposition, and Hughes’s persona as a Grand Old Man of English Letters must have seemed pitiably dated: here was a man who prayed each day before he wrote, and whose work had been described in pompous terms by a bishop as “the fruit of a lay vocation.”All his life he had subjected himself to a profound moral inquisition, and he had put his characters through the same process. He wanted to explore the interface between individual and society, and to work out what it costs to stand against the tide of the times, should that be necessary. He wanted to find out what had gone wrong in Europe after the Great War, what vacuum the Nazis had filled, and why so many intelligent and well-meaning people were unable to see the consequence of the Nazis’ rise to power. But by the 1970s, these questions seemed less urgent, and a writer who put moral questions at the heart of his book ran the risk of being stigmatized as a “moralizer.”
Hughes was as old as the century, and would live to complete only twelve chapters of what was intended as the final volume. They see Norah, the Coventry child, come to work in Dorset, drawing two important strands of the story together; Augustine falls in love with Norah, and we assume he is on the brink of radical self-appraisal. The views of Hughes’s critics have dated more quickly than his own work. His subversive wit and the almost childlike clarity of his vision stand apart from quirks of fashion. The Wooden Shepherdess is a sprawling, capacious book, but its moments of close focus are startling: we feel history moving inside us, feel its pulse jump under our hand. When we read it with its precursor, as one story, we begin to understand Hughes’s claim that the failure to read and learn from fiction marks a retreat from reality “like that of an autistic child.” Fiction, he believed, breaks us out of our solitary confinement. It allows us to experience other people as people, not as things: this experience is “the necessary ground of ethics.” Few artists have made so heartfelt a plea for their chosen form, and few writers have done so much to capture the spirit of a century.
H I L A RY MA N T E L
Issue: 7 May 2005
Psychic jaunts and jollities
Fourth Estate, 452pp, £16.99, ISBN 0007157754
Reviewed by D. J. Taylor
It was always on the cards, to use a rather obvious metaphor, that Hilary Mantel would write a novel about spiritualism. Her earlier books were awash with hints of the numinous. Giving up the Ghost (2003), her recent memoir, duly connected these fragments of otherworldliness up to the circumstances of her own life. Now comes Beyond Black, a long, dense and complicated work which combines almost forensic accounts of the modern medium in action with some rapt reportage from in and around the M25 corridor, while leaving the reader in no doubt that these two kinds of banality are somehow connected.
The focus for this relentless and at the same time wonderfully funny enquiry is a pair of oddly assorted thirtysomething women: Alison, fat, esurient and permanently exhausted by her trawls around the Psychic Fayres and spirit-hands-have-touched-me expositions of south-east England; Colette, thin, bad-tempered and lately detached from her complacently self-absorbed husband (‘Any abstraction, indirection or allusion was wasted on Gavin, and in fact even the most straightforward form of communication … was a challenge to his attention span.’) Installed as Alison’s PA-cum-partner, cruelly efficient Colette (‘Are you going to sell me something or shall I drive up to Notcutts on the A30?’) soon starts rousting the hitherto rackety equipage of her employer’s professional career into gear.
Alison’s personal life, on the other hand, is rather less susceptible to organisation. Not only does her teenage past, down in the Aldershot boondocks with slapper mum and an assortment of vicious male attendants, contain unimaginable horrors; its long-departed cast — foul-mouthed Morris, Keith Capstick, Pikey Pete and the rest — contrive to haunt her present. As the psychic cavalcade of which Al is a principal ornament continues its erratic progress (some of the funniest bits follow the on-stage embarrassments of her less talented colleagues) around the Thames Valley hotels and leisure centres, the babble of spirit voices grows ever more insistent. Innate scepticism routinely checked by impressive evidences of second sight (among other achievements, Alison is able to anticipate Princess Diana’s death), Colette is aware of a greater mystery, the terrible misdeed of Alison’s childhood, hanging in the ether above them.
All this is done with a kind of amused savagery — always latent in Mantel’s earlier work, only now, it seems, allowed the space to luxuriate and develop — which relies for its sharpest effects on the thoroughly prosaic nature of her material. Removed to a new ‘executive development’ in the Woking area, for example, Alison chums up with an amiable down-and-out named Mart, who eventually hangs himself in the garden shed. ‘This is your fault,’ neurotic Michelle from next door harangues her, before an audience of fellow-neighbours. ‘If you hadn’t encouraged him he’d have gone and hanged himself somewhere else.’
There are several quarries being hotly pursued here: most obviously inner hurt, personal dereliction, the whole idea of ‘goodness’ as practised, or desired, by people who don’t have the luxury of living in an Iris Murdoch novel. Moving in their wake, but intimately connected to the dim self-satisfaction of the supporting cast, come a series of environmental despatches from the Surrey side of the Home Counties, a terrible Gehenna, on this evidence, full of jerry-built executive estates crammed with four-wheel-driving computer programmers in identikit mail-order jackets. This loving description of the reconditioned ‘Fig & Pheasant’ may be taken as characteristic of the general air of pained slyness:
In the Seventies it was bought by a steakhouse chain and Tudorised, fitted out with plywood oak-stained panels and those deep-buttoned settles covered in stainproof plush of which the Tudors were so fond.
In the end, revelations extravagantly filed, an odd circularity prevails, sending dull, exigent Colette back to impassive Gav, and a solus Al out on the road with a pair of new and more biddable familiars. In a deft touch, Gavin turns out to have beguiled his wife’s absence with a solitary imaginative act: the invention of a non-existent model girlfriend. Hilary Mantel would probably deny that she has written a ‘political’ novel, but Beyond Black is as much an argument for not voting Labour as anything that surfaced in last month’s general election campaign.
Enfield, where the dead go to live
Hilary Mantel summons up the living and the dead in her extraordinary novel, Beyond Black. The spirit world is far closer than we think, says Fay Weldon
Saturday April 30, 2005
by Hilary Mantel
464pp, Fourth Estate, £16.99
Hilary Mantel has done something extraordinary. She has taken that ethereal halfway house between heaven and hell, between the living and the dead, and nailed it on the page. She has taken those moments between sleep and waking, when we hardly know who we are, or why, and turned them into a novel that makes the unbelievable believable. She persuades, she convinces, she offers an alternative universe, she uses the extraordinary descriptive skills that are her trademark — Mantel does "seedy" as no one else, except possibly Graham Greene in his early novels, The Confidential Agent and Brighton Rock. She produces characters — some dead, some partly dead, some barely alive but pretending — that are as strong and vivid on the page as if they were living or dying next door — if only you cared to go there. Most don't, next door being a rather nasty and disturbing place. She's witty, ironic, intelligent and, I suspect, haunted. This is a book out of the unconscious, where the best novels come from.
If, as a reader, you feel briskly and brightly that dead is dead, alive is alive, and anything else is nonsense, this novel is probably not for you. Too weird, you'll say. But they are out there, on the road, the Alisons, the mediums. Thousands turn up to hear her, trust her.
Alison, off to her next gig in London's outer suburbs, the wasteland of people and places, the haunting grounds of the dead: "Travelling: the dank oily days after Christmas. The motorway, its wastes looping London: the margin's scrub grass flaring orange in the lights, and the leaves of the poisoned shrubs striped yellow-green like a cantaloupe melon. Four o'clock: light sinking over the orbital road. Teatime in Enfield, night falling on Potters Bar."
Alison, a size 22 on a good day, is a bridge between the living and the dead. She has inherited "the gift", as others do the gene for playing the piano. Her prostitute mother has a murdered, invisible friend, Gloria. Her grandmother's no better. Sometimes Alison gets it right, sometimes she doesn't, as she confronts her audience in scout halls and spiritualist churches. The dead tell her lies, and are as tricky as the living: channelling makes her ill; she is in constant pain. She frequents the world of psychic fairs, of crystal-gazers and mind readers; she has friends, colleagues, and makes a comfortable living as a "professional". "They don't call you mad if you make a living." A mix of therapist, fraud and saint, she comforts and consoles those whom others disregard — the old, the sick, the lonely, the uneducated and the dim, in whom the energy of life flickers so low they can barely be counted among the living.
The living and the dead demand her ear; difficult to record her life story as her sceptical assistant Collette, hoping to make money from it, demands — there is too much interference, too much clamour and complaint from the other side. Alison to Collette: "Can we switch the tape off now, please? Morris is threatening me. He doesn't like me talking about the early days. He doesn't want it recorded." Morris, the millstone round Alison's neck, is her spirit guide: a vulgar, pimply, smelly, violent and nasty character, whose position of rest is slumped against her bedroom wall, fiddling with his flies. Collette, who lives with Alison, cannot see him, but occasionally detects a kind of sewage whiff in the air and knows he's around. "Other mediums," Alison complains, "have spirit guides with a bit more about them — dignified impassive medicine men or ancient Persian sages — why does she have to have a grizzled grinning apparition in a book-maker's check jacket, and suede shoes with bald toecaps."
By an effort of will she can keep Morris at a distance, but if she does there is a crawling feeling inside her spine, "like a slow torture, until she has to give in and hear what he says. On days when she really needs a break she tries to imagine a big lid banging down on him. It works for a time. His voice booms hollow and incomprehensible inside a huge metal tub. For a while she doesn't have to take any notice of him. Then, little by little, an inch at a time, he begins to raise the lid."
Morris has friends and supporters, a murderous gang of petty thieves among whom Alison grew up, who, when alive, raped, tormented and taught her "lessons she wouldn't forget", scarring her mentally and physically. Now they are dead, they continue to abuse and upset her in any way they can. They want their revenge. Even when she was a child, the spirits were about, making a misery of her life, seizing her schoolgirl hand and making her scrawl obscenities on her exam papers so she never passed.
She can never be alone: Collette has only to get out of the passenger seat at a service station, and some spirit lady will slip in beside her and start complaining about her bunions. And if at the service station inexplicable things happen — hub caps bowling down the forecourt by themselves, top-shelf magazines tossed everywhere with no apparent cause — that'll be Morris, sniggering, ambushing Alison just when she hoped she had given him the slip.
This is the inventive, delightful, subversive aspect of the novel. Its other aspect is dead serious: a tale of wastelands, unhappiness and ugliness. In Mantel's vision it's as if the whole of outer suburbia has been taken up by brown-fill, and everywhere the second best is taking over from the best. When mediums claim they are visited by the spirits of great composers — Beethoven, Liszt — and produce new compositions at their behest, what comes out is second rate, never the best work, always the worst, done on a bad day. For all we know, Purgatory is already here, creeping ever nearer the centre of our cities.
Fay Weldon's new novel, Mantrapped, is published by Fourth Estate
Beyond Black, by Hilary Mantel
Giving up the ghosts
By Jill Dawson
Published : 29 April 2005
Something is rotten in 21st-century Britain. Radioactive waste is washing into the water supply and Japanese knotweed is choking the grasslands. Paranoia about terrorists, gypsies and undesirables creeping through gardens and infiltrating the sheds is spreading through new housing estates.
In Hilary Mantel's novel, Alison Hart is a psychic who wants to do a good deed in a cruel world. Described as being of an "unfeasible" size, "soft as an Edwardian, opulent as a showgirl", she is partnered by her depressed, flint-hearted assistant, Colette. Together the two women travel the clubs of Britain, with Alison passing on the messages of the dead. What is it the dead want to tell us?
Mostly about buttons lost down the back of sofas, and their opinions on our choice of kitchen worktops. The interests of these dead spirits circle around health and knitting. The audiences are mostly female: "Men, on their own behalf, were not very much interested in fortune and fate. They believed they made their own, thanks very much." But when Alison is not on stage, it's a different story. Then her spirit guides speak to her in decidedly more ugly terms.
As the novel progresses, the voices of these spirit guides become more clamouring. Their origins in Alison's derelict childhood alert us to secrets that she is not willing to share. Like all mediums, she avoids the word "death", preferring to speak of people "passing over": "even though they deserved frightening, she would never, when she was with her clients, slip a hint or tip a wink about the true nature of the place beyond black." Alison has seen that place and it's becoming harder for her to fend it off.
This is an England of "perjured ministers and burnt-out paedophiles", "unloved viaducts and graffitied bridges", richly deserving of the flaying Mantel gives it: ("This sceptred isle/ this other Eden/ My sceptred arse" goes the dialogue between a couple of Alison's spirit guides). It's a country of pettymindedness and nostalgia: attitudes hilariously skewered by Mantel.
Most of the people Alison encounters would rather not think about the lives of tortured or desperate people; or if they do, it's only in terms of their effect on house prices. Despite the humour, we're drawn towards a much more chilling place: a place of everyday evils in the life of a small girl, living with an addled, prostitute mother, and a constant stream of punters; a child so tormented that she's met the Devil himself. (He's a family man in a leather jacket, known as Nick).
Beyond Black is Mantel's tenth novel, her first book since the hugely successful autobiography Giving up the Ghost. Praise heaped on that book applies here too: laceratingly observant, a masterpiece of wit, heavy with atmosphere. It is also glorious, insolent and slyly funny: full of robust, uncluttered prose and searing moments.
Echoes of the Mary Bell case, as well as hints about schizophrenia and madness float up from the text. The verisimilitude of Alison's day-to-day life, down to the piece of apricot polyester ("my silk") she clings to, means that when it is revealed, the horror of her childhood is all the more disturbing.
An atmosphere of choking claustrophobia starts to prevail as the novel barrels towards its conclusion and the spirit guides war inside Alison's crowded mind. "There's an evil thing you wouldn't want to see," is the refrain of one of Alison's most pernicious guides, the wizened, masturbating Morris. It might just as well be the refrain of the novel: do we want to see it? Can we bear to look?
Jill Dawson's latest novel is 'Wild Boy' (Sceptre)
April 30, 2005-05-06
Gloria in extremis
Reviewed by Kate Saunders
By Hilary Mantel
ISBN 0 0071 5775 4
Hilary Mantel is often praised for (among other things) her “wit”. It is true that all her novels, and her brilliant memoir, Giving Up the Ghost, are superbly witty. But “wit” is too pallid a word for her particular brand of comedy. Mantel is dreadfully funny — funny with an evil streak, as things are when you pass through the membrane of normality; funny like slapstick at a funeral.
The front cover of her latest novel, Beyond Black, bears a quotation attributed to the Queen: “There are powers at work in this country about which we have no knowledge.” Its heroine, the stout, kindly and profoundly troubled Alison, makes her living from these unknown powers. Alison is a professional medium who has never known a moment of privacy. Since childhood, she has been pestered by crowds of spirits. When she takes the platform at one of her shows, making contact is the least of her worries. A large part of her work consists of hiding from her audience the terrible truth about the afterlife, “that eventless realm, neither cold nor hot, neither hilly nor flat, where the dead, each at their own best age and marooned in an eternal afternoon, pass the ages with sod all going on”.
The dead are greedy for recognition, and Alison’s receptivity is a magnet for all kinds of dead people. The passing of Diana, Princess of Wales is particularly debilitating. “She’s just the type that lingers and drops,” thinks Alison, “who waxes and wanes, breathes in and out her tides: who, by the slow accretion of tears, brings ceilings down and wears a path into stone.”
Alison gives her clients soothing platitudes, but she is a woman on the edge of despair. Her spirit-guide is a revolting little man called Morris, who is attended by the very scum of the next world. This assortment of thieves and murderers can mess with Alison’s head because she knew them when they were “earthside”. Escape is impossible. Wherever she turns she will find them, taunting her about the childhood she longs to forget.
Fortunately, she is looked after by someone who is spiritually stone-blind. Her assistant Colette is emotionally barren, utterly prosaic, yet with a frustrated yearning for any hint of the numinous. She walks away from her loveless marriage to Gavin, and takes over the running of Alison’s day-to-day life. She answers the phone and drives the car. The phone-line yowls with ghostly interference and Alison’s car is always packed with unsavoury spirits — but they don ’t bother Colette because she can’t see them.
Colette is partly repelled by Alison, and partly fascinated. She wants to write a book about Alison’s life, and tapes several interviews with her. When she plays the tapes back, however, they are nothing but garbled burps and squeaks. Colette controls every detail of Alison’s outer life, but she can’t control the invisible life.
It emerges that Alison is living in a kind of bondage, which will be eternal unless she can find redemption. The thread of evil appears to reach back to Emmie, Alison’s disastrous mother. Alison’s “gift” has been handed down from Emmie — when we meet her, she is attended by the spirit of Gloria, who was murdered in her house and carried through the kitchen in several pieces.
Emmie’s house, where such unspeakable
things happened, is the place from which Alison must escape. One solution is to
buy a new house, unsullied by the dead and their memories. She and Colette move
into an upmarket estate, not caring that the neighbours think they are lesbians.
The spirits retreat. Colette becomes increasingly controlling. And then Alison
finds unexpected redemption in her own back yard. Beyond Black is
chilling, creepy and endlessly inventive.
May 08, 2005
Fiction: Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel
REVIEWED BY MAGGIE GEE
by Hilary Mantel
Fourth Estate £16.99 pp 457
What would you expect from a novel about a floridly overweight psychic, Alison Hart, and her skinny, heartless sidekick, Colette? Comedy, surely: and that, indeed, is the prevailing mode of Hilary Mantel’s vividly disturbing ninth novel. And yet it also does what the title promises, going way beyond black. In this book, Mantel anatomises a crumbling, rotten Britain, raped by tasteless developers, roasted by the sun and gnawed away by the waters that crawl around it, and also slowly uncovers a childhood lived in a house not unlike Fred West’s.
The novel begins comfortably enough with Alison and Colette on tour. Alison is an old-style psychic, living, as she says “in the nice part of Slough”, though “most people don’t think Slough has a nice part”. She is too heavy for television and too unbusiness-like, giving her all in theatrical shows where the foyer is adorned with a youthful portrait of her face on an easel draped with apricot polyester. Colette, a younger and more venal woman, wants to drag her employer upmarket. Sure that their joint fortune can be achieved if only Alison will lose weight and give proper answers for a bestselling book she is planning to write about her, Colette chivvies and soothes Alison by turns, moving them to a “new build” house on a pretentious estate distinguished by “panels of faux pargeting with dolphin and mermaid designs” and making them tea in the middle of the night, until her limited fund of charity fails her.
The psychic road-shows seem, on the face of it, innocuous and blatantly fake. Alison hears the voices of spirits so vaguely defined that anyone in the audience can claim them as theirs (“Your daddy’s still keeping an eye on you”), and soothingly tells them how well their lost ones are doing “airside”. Backstage and “earthside”, however, all is not as it seems. Sprawled in the dressing-room is a drunken, obscene, misshapen and smelly man called Morris, his flies undone, his foreskin retracted — and only Alison can see him.
For, although Alison’s stage show is largely a matter of pleasing the audience, she lives the rest of her life in regular, disquieting contact with the dead. There is a sisterhood of stage psychics (“Natasha, Psychic to the Stars”, daughter of “Natasha, Psychic to the Tsars”, for example, one of the novel’s many good jokes) who all have spirit guides, but only Alison has one as ghastly as Morris. He turns out to be an emanation from a childhood so horrible that Alison (and indeed the reader) can only bear to face up to it in flashes. Alison’s mother was a prostitute and abortionist who tried to kill her in the womb with a knitting needle. Having failed, she sold her nine-year-old daughter to the rabble of foul-mouthed, violent, masturbating men who hung out at their home in Aldershot. Alison’s whole life (her glossy, carefully made-up stage persona, her sexless, overfed body, the syrupy comfort she offers in her shows) has been a struggle to escape these “fiends”. As the book proceeds, however, they come back from the dead, one by one and eventually en masse, to haunt her. Meanwhile, her relationship with Colette, at first companionable and domestic, breaks down, leaving Alison alone for the final, epic confrontation.
Mantel always writes with scalpel-sharp observation and a prodigal gift for imagery. Princess Diana returns as a ghost, gaunt in a wedding-dress covered with press-cuttings. A crying baby, “wound up with colic”, “preys on the attention” of its mother “as if he were entangled in her gut”.
My feeling that this novel could have been shorter, for all its dark energy, may be partly because much of the material is so powerfully unpleasant. And yet, this is a moral book. Like an author inventing a story, Alison invents her psychic persona in order not be crushed by the sheer weight of horror in “the place beyond black”, but in the end, something more than make-believe is required. The ultimate failure and ultimate punishment are Colette’s, for she, unlike Alison, is ungenerous. This very modern book expresses an old-fashioned truth, that only by good works can we overcome the evil in ourselves.
HM and Diana
M. John Harrison
27 April 2005
451pp. | Fourth Estate. £16.99. | 0 00 715775 4
Like a kind of violent infestation, men come and go around
Alison Cheetham in her mother, Emmeline’s house. One night they are beating up
the women, the next they themselves have faces like raw mince. One minute they
are twisting a nipple, the next they are up North with some other blokes and a
van. They like to keep to themselves, along with their dogs and deals, in the
sheds on the waste ground at the back; but they can appreciate an audience, too,
and they often come into the house to have a wash, or a vomit, or a wank in the
lavatory – though God knows why they should need that, since Emmeline is
obliging enough. Their gibberish and violence make sure nothing in Alison’s life
has a shape. School is difficult. There is never any money. Her mother,
increasingly confused by a diet of downers and beer, ends up with an invisible
friend called Gloria to talk to; while aged five, locked in the attic where she
will be safe from the men and her own anger, Alison meets Mrs McGibbet, her
first guide to spirit world.
Twenty-odd years later, we find Alison travelling the M25 and its environs, her surname both more and less appropriate than it seems. Inside the car, something dead is beginning to stir. Outside it is still a male landscape, full of “perjured ministers and burnt-out paedophiles”, but at each turn-off, each junction, women are waiting to know their fate. Alison has turned her childhood to her advantage and become a professional psychic. With her spirit guide Morris and her personal assistant Colette, she brings, if not enlightenment then comfort to the municipal halls and raddled old theatres of Greater London.
Spirit world is business. The medium provides a service having little to do with mediumship, though mediumship is its rationale. Alison brings relief for the condition of being human, especially the condition of being a woman. In this blackest and most sarcastic of comedies, though they shape the narrative in absentia, men are seen to be few and far between, feeble even when they are pivotal, a sideshow to the real event. The real event is a baby, “wound up with colic, twisting in the arms of an unseen mother” and “preying on her attention as if he were entangled in her gut”. Powerful images – of disease, of anxiety, of
the loss of ambition, the revealed emptiness of love, the incessant, unrelenting, unrewarding demands on women’s strength – build up a composite of the condition spiritualism has been designed to alleviate with its shabby but effective balm of charlatanry. They are the answer to the question, what is the role of the medium? – and perhaps more importantly, what is the condition of women that they should still need one?
Alison Cheetham’s world has needed a damp cloth over it since about 1975. There are nights when she looks down from the platform to see only closed stupid faces. She has to win their hearts. A correct guess about her kitchen fitments, Alison says, will make any woman drop her guard: only then will the dead speak. “I’m getting a broken wedding ring. It’s this lady here in beige. Is it you, darling ?” The dead are often as bad as the audience. They cluster round so desperately, but all they want to do is talk about cardigans. They undergo a “mingling and mincing and mixing of personality . . . the fusing of the personal memory with the collective”, and thus mistake themselves easily for Queen Victoria or their own older sister. Eventually they shuffle away, but before that, just like the audience, they always ask the wrong questions: “Has the number 64 gone, are we having a fry-up this morning? Never, am I dead ?”. Alison’s life is, on balance, less rewarding than her audience’s. She cannot sleep. She eats compulsively. Her neighbours think she is a lesbian because she shares a house with Colette. Meanwhile, in spirit world – which for Alison runs together with the world we call our own, and about which Alison dares tell no one, especially the punters, anything approaching the truth – Donnie Aitkenside, Keef Capstick, Pikey Pete the gypsy and Morris himself, all those violent clowns who tormented her mother, still surround her, farting, scratching their balls, driving off in other people’s lorries. Morris wraps himself in the curtains like an ectoplasmic cyst. He licks out Alison’s glass as soon as she leaves the room, “running his yellow fissured tongue around the rim”. He pursues his sly war of attrition with the psychically illiterate but ever watchful Colette. He is less an entity than a programme of spiritual disinformation, and through him the dark forces in Alison’s life are reorganizing. Men like Pikey Pete may be dead but they never let a woman go. They want revenge for the way Alison wrested control from them, all those years ago.
As in all Hilary Mantel’s work, dualities abound. Beyond Black is an odd-couple story, of a medium who is fat and generous and her assistant who is thin and stingy. Equally, it opposes the dead to the living, spirit world to our world, the professional to the punter, and the commodified to the real; while, as a side issue, the emasculated antics of contemporary men are compared with the grosser folkways of their fathers and grandfathers, to the keen detriment of both. But these oppositions are never secure. They infect one another, they share boundary conditions, they steal one another’s best tunes. Like spirit world itself they refuse to remain pure. Do the dead live? It seems possible that they do. Are the living dead? In Mantel’s view that is an easy question. Meanwhile, braided between them, optic fibres of ectoplasm bring us sudden tantalizing glimpses of the ghosts of Rosamond Lehmann and Elizabeth Taylor – and of Mantel herself, who haunts this book the way she haunted A Change of Climate (1994) and An Experiment in Love (1995). Much like a novelist, Alison sees “straight through the living, to their ambitions and secret sorrow”. It is the psychic’s job, the author reminds us, “to introduce her audience to the metaphorical side of life”. With that, yWith this you appreciate the cleverness of the title of Mantel’s 2003 memoir Giving Up the Ghost.
Mantel’s initials are also used by that other well known HM, Queen Elizabeth II, to whom the novel’s epigraph – “There are powers at work in this country about which we have no knowledge” – is attributed. Beyond Black takes up the psychic narrative of HM’s Britain from the “fag end of the Thatcher/Major years”, presenting it as a state, or a state of mind, in which business has begun to replace our world with a more cost-effective version. In this insincere but earnest Legoland, few people speak English: instead they choose the faux-technical languages of estate agents, financial services, or niche journalism, in a Babel where it is hard to know if you are being sold cosmetics or car wheels. Here this is sometimes very funny, sometimes as wearing as it is in real life; but the effect is instantly recognizable. It is the weakening or wearing away, the theft, of the real. We don’t buy chairs any more, we buy click’n’fix korner-group seating. We don’t buy a house, we buy a unit of new build within a nautically themed development. “Some contraction” to the room-size can be expected during the course of construction, and every humanizing modification – including Artex-free ceilings – will come as a chargeable extra. The news of this will be brought to us by someone dissociated but venal, who speaks in a New Zealand accent andends every sentence with a question mark. By the time Mantel has finished reminding us of such exchanges, we are no longer laughing: she has made them a metonym for the whole of our experience.
For Mantel, the prolonged defining moment of this condition occurred in 1997, with the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Spiritual business identified with Diana from the word go; she was its patron saint. Women mapped their lives on to hers, and from the Wedding to the Funeral it was the responsibility of the
psychic to make sense of that entanglement. Mantel’s own act of mediumship, when it comes, is quick and unforgiving: the Princess breaks through to Alison as a version of Alison’s mother. She has pinned some of her own press cuttings to the skirt of her wedding dress – even so, she can barely remember her own name, much less that of her sons. “Oh, fuckerama! Whatever are they called?” And then: “Give my love to . . . Kingy. And the other kid. Kingy and Thingy”. Confused, drunk, mangy, she wanders off. When some people die, Alison explains, they become vague, they start to dissipate immediately. But we conclude that spirit world is as vapid and chaotic as the world of time; Diana has deconstructed herself first to her media function – Hello! Woman – then to the much darker act of self-abandonment which underwrites that. It is an edgy scene, almost too funny to laugh at, and certainly the most bizarre in the book.
Part of the exhilaration of Beyond Black is its sense of being a tightrope walk. Any moment, one feels, it might default to undisciplined satirical mayhem – an episode of The Vicar of Dibley written by Will Self. What gives us our sense of security, our confidence in the artiste, is her management of the odd couple. Whatever opposition they represent in the novel’s metaphor, it is both irreconcilable and self-generating. Colette is all praxis and no spirit. Alison is open to the world beyond, but she has trouble finding her shoes. They are never allowed to climb up out of the oubliette their times have contrived for them. Alison, soft, slow, poor at figures, prefers pretty scarves and frocks. When she moves you can hear the rustle of Edwardian plumes and silks. Being a receptacle of the dead is a trade for the large-bodied, the generous of spirit – “In a small space she seemed to use up more than her share of the oxygen; in return her skin breathed out moist perfumes, like a giant tropical flower”. Colette, on the other hand, you would hardly notice. With her “cyclist’s legs” and lycra, aerobicized and self-assessment-accounted to a shadow, she has no presence beyond what can be suggested by a push-up bra. Her mind is “quick, shallow and literal”, her character assertive, and she has an instant grasp of any kind of commerce: but spiritually – and indeed in most ordinary senses – she is an organism with no function. Even when she yearns for something more, her quest boils down quickly to the solution that if learning to read the tarot cards is too difficult, you had better “employ someone qualified to read them for you”. The service economy engages spirit world, spiritual business ensues, and a co-dependency is made in heaven.
In Colette, without core though she is, we find the core of Hilary Mantel’s savage, startlingly subversive and raucously funny novel. Colette is drawn to Alison because, although to herself she seems alive, she is already one of the dead. Perfume doesn’t last on her skin, and her feet fail to indent the carpet. “What’s wrong with me?”, she thinks. “When I’m gone I leave no trace.” We know exactly what will happen. She will cling to Alison for a while, unsure of what she needs, then drift back into the unreal world of Blair’s Britain, where, as long as you can earn your living and invest your funds, a banal self-absorption is the order of the day. The defining characteristic of the dead, after all, is that they have no life. That is their appeal to the medium, who, though she has a duty to speak for them, exists in a state of solipsism hardly less intense than theirs.
Sat 23 Apr 2005
Review by ALLAN MASSIE
BY HILARY MANTEL
Fourth Estate, £16.99
HILARY MANTEL IS A VERY clever and inventive novelist, and Beyond Black is a very clever novel, full of vitality. It fizzes with energy, and this energy is sufficient to carry the reader forward, even over long passages which are superfluous, and others which would have benefited from a firm editorial hand and some drastic pruning. It is written with bravura and conviction, and this is just as well, because to say that much of the matter strains credulity is to put it mildly.
The main character, Alison Hart, is a medium, in communion with the spirit world. We see her first in one of her public performances in a theatre, and this chapter is brilliantly persuasive. Equally convincing is her business partner-cum-manager, Colette, a pale, self-obsessed and determined woman, one of those who believes that she has been cheated by life. She was married once, and doesn’t quite know why; then the marriage ended as casually as it began. The relationship between Alison and Colette is well devised and nicely portrayed. All this is fine.
Alison is also convincing. The medium may be able to bring comfort to others, but she is herself an unhappy and deeply troubled woman, victim of appalling abuse as a child, living in squalor and poverty with her mother, an incompetent and feckless prostitute.
Her spirit guide, a nasty lecherous little brute called Morris, was one of those who used to frequent her mother’s house, and he makes Alison’s life a misery with his violence, misbehaviour and determination to be reunited with a number of low-life characters from those days, who have now all, it seems, passed over to the other side. Some of them apparently do join him, and travel invisibly, but not inaudibly, in the back of the car as Colette drives Alison to psychic shows and events all over the south of England, and even as far north as Sheffield.
Some of Morris is funny, and I have the impression that Hilary Mantel has got a lot of fun out of creating him and his disreputable crew. But a little of him goes a long way, and there is a lot more than a little. More important is the question: just how seriously is the reader asked to accept the "reality" of Morris and the other spirits? Are we to assume that they are really present - as even the cold, far-from-psychic Colette comes to accept their existence? Most readers who think spiritualism bunk are not likely to be convinced.
On the other hand, those who believe in it will probably be offended by the way Mantel portrays the other spiritualists, mediums and faith-healers with whom Alison consorts; she mischievously exposes them as cranks, fakes, crooks and idiots. Some of this is quite funny. When the death of the Princess of Wales coincides with a spirit fest there is great excitement and some competition to see whom she will come through to. She does indeed manifest herself to Alison, asking her to give her love to her boys, whose names however she can’t remember. Alison explains to Colette that this isn’t surprising: those who have passed over are often confused and disorientated. Poor things, it’s not surprising; they don’t know where they are or what is expected of them.
This is a novel to be taken at the gallop, a black comedy, where nasty things lurk in the woodshed and horrors abound. It veers abruptly between the everyday life of prosperous, seedy, post-industrial England, acutely and wickedly observed, and the chaos of the spirit world, both absurd and unsettling. Its success, however, is in its picture of the real world and in the characterisation of Alison and Colette. They ring true, even if the spirits are all bosh. But it would have been more alarming if the spirits had stayed locked up in Alison’s own tumultuous mind.
451pp, Fourth Estate, £16·99
The unhappy medium and the
Ruth Scurr reviews Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel.
Since 2003, when Hilary Mantel published her bold and acclaimed memoir, Giving Up the Ghost, fans have been waiting to see how her fiction would develop in its wake. Beyond Black, her ninth novel, is a stunning answer for them: a deep, disturbing, violently amusing and subversive work, testimony to the formidable strength of Mantel's imagination, which splits the human world so convincingly between the forces of good and evil. It is the closest to a séance you will get on the printed page.
The story centres on an unholy trinity: Alison Hart, a very plump professional medium; Colette, her stick-thin business manager; and Morris, her spectral guide to the spirit world, or "airside", as it is termed in the lucrative "earth-side" trade. Since communing with the dead continues round the clock, Colette's job involves living in. Morris also lives in, though his is an unwholesome presence in Alison's house; "It is so humiliating, she thought, so crushing and shameful to have Morris in your life and to have lived with him all these years."
Unlike her boss, Colette is not "a sensitive", so doesn't see Morris slouching about, fiddling with his flies and dick, or hear his foul-mouthed banter, but she can smell him occasionally. Alison, on the other hand, has been plagued by Morris since childhood and cannot find a way to be rid of him. "You're worse off than if you were married," Colette says.
Alison and Colette meet at a psychic extravaganza in the shadow of Windsor Castle. Alison picks Colette out of the predominantly female audience, and correctly identifies her as a lonely, childless, embittered young wife in a dead-end job. Colette jumps at the new work Alison offers because it is an escape from her "beige" existence and boring husband. Also, the tarot cards promise that she will meet a new man, one whose name begins with "M", who will enter her life through work. Morris, obviously, was not what she had in mind.
Mantel has long been fascinated by - and fascinating about - power in human relationships. Vehement emotional energies spark between Mantel's three protagonists. All flail and suffer.
Morris suffers because he is one of the vulgar dead - dim when he was "earth-side", even more nonplussed to find himself "airside" - and death has brought no release, just a continuation of the spite and inanity that defined his meaningless life. Morris rams home one of the darkest insights in this extraordinary book: people won't become decent just because they are dead. If there is an afterlife, the odds are it's still cruel and unjust.
Colette suffers when she finds her plans to improve Alison's business by marketing her more efficiently hopelessly frustrated. Colette is rational and matter-of-fact throughout, "one of the world's great mentioners". Her deadpan one-liners, pitched against paranormal chaos, contribute much of the novel's wild humour. "Do the next-doors think we're lesbians?" Alison asks her. "I expect so," Colette replies. "I hope it spoils their enjoyment of their property." Most futile of all is Colette's attempt to get Alison to diet down from a size 22 (at least) to something more conventional.
But Alison suffers the most. She agrees to one of Colette's many moneymaking schemes, and they start recording interviews about her past, as material for a popular book. Alison grew up outside Aldershot, where her mother prostituted herself and her daughter to violent petty criminals. She was horribly abused, savaged on one occasion by a fighting dog fed on human meat, taught lessons she'd never forget, and effectively put off sex for life. Even to this sordid scenario, Mantel brings her black humour. Alison recalls how her mother couldn't cook, never understood what foods went together to make a meal, and put one punter off by "whizzing him up some of her tandoori prawns with tinned spaghetti".
When Alison and Colette play the tapes of their interviews, they find them overlaid by the hiss and clamour of spirits: fiends of Aldershot, hungry for vengeance. Attempting to evade this kind of interference, they buy a newly built house, devoid of history, in the vicinity of the M25 - Alison works the suburban venues on the motorway's perimeter, inner London being too alarming. Mantel brilliantly evokes the destitute landscape of that part of England; the Heathrow sheep stained by aviation fuel and starving ponies on scrubland. "Night closes in on the perjured ministers and burnt-out paedophiles, on the unloved viaducts and graffitied bridges, on ditches beneath mouldering hedgerows and railings never warmed by human touch."
It is Mantel's compassion for the ordinary people who live and die in such unlovely places that illuminates this dark book and creates its black lustre. "Where's God in all this?" Colette asks Alison in one of their interviews. Her question haunts the whole novel.
May 15, 2005
By TERRENCE RAFFERTY
By Hilary Mantel.
365 pp. A John Macrae Book/Henry Holt & Company. $26.
HILARY MANTEL'S funny and harrowing new novel is the story of a woman who is coming to terms -- better late than never, as any one of the book's many platitude-dependent characters might say -- with her extremely disturbing past. And I say ''coming to terms with'' because that, too, is just the sort of comforting, shock-absorbing expression, familiar to viewers of the more earnest and wetly therapeutic daytime talk shows, that Mantel has made it her mission to seek out and destroy. The process undergone in the pages of ''Beyond Black'' by its fat, middle-aged English heroine, Alison Hart, is self-analysis and memory recovery of almost unimaginable psychic violence -- not the kind of self-actualizing experience Dr. Phil would recommend.
This is more like ''The Exorcist,'' with spinning heads and projectile vomiting and Jesuits hurling themselves through windows.
That's what coming to terms with one's past is, Mantel means to tell us, and she should know, having recently done the deed herself, in a painful, brilliantly prickly memoir called ''Giving Up the Ghost.'' She may regret not having saved that title for this book, because the heroine of ''Beyond Black'' is laboring to divest herself of malign spirits who are present in her life in the most immediate and most literal way. Alison is a professional medium and clairvoyant -- in her preferred terminology, a ''Sensitive'' -- and depends for her peculiar living on the services of a ''spirit guide'' named Morris, who is, in death as he was in life, an exceptionally nasty piece of work. He is also a constant reminder of the unspeakable childhood that Alison, for all her extrasensory powers, can recall only dimly.
Morris is the ghost she longs to give up, ''this grizzled grinning apparition in a bookmaker's check jacket, and suede shoes with bald toe caps'' -- a demon who sees himself as a lovable rogue, a sport, but is in fact about as foul a specimen of humanity, living or dead, as British fiction has conjured up in the past few years. (At least since Ian McEwan cleaned up his act.) And, worse, Morris has mates: a crew of villains whom he has begun to gather around him, from the four corners of the underworld, all of them now converging on the already crowded consciousness of Alison the Sensitive.
It is no coincidence that Morris's horrible party guests start turning up just as Alison has begun to dictate her autobiography to her ''sharp, rude, and effective'' new assistant, Colette. The ''fiends,'' as Alison calls them, are of course Mantel's metaphor for the awful, toxic stuff that tends to bubble up from the depths of the unconscious when a person tries to write her memoirs. There's a passage early in ''Giving Up the Ghost'' in which Mantel admits ''I hardly know how to write about myself,'' and briefly resolves to keep it simple, ''plain words on plain paper'' -- a resolution she sheepishly abandons in the next paragraph. ''I stray away from the beaten path of plain words,'' she writes, ''into the meadows of extravagant simile,'' and in ''Beyond Black'' she strays yet farther, finding in Alison the most extravagant simile of all. A novelist writing her memoirs, Mantel seems to say, is like a psychic reading her own mind.
In this book Mantel, back on her home turf of fiction (this is her ninth novel), allows herself to gorge on simile and metaphor and wild comic invention -- the treats she had tried, and guiltily failed, to deny herself while following the hard-fact regimen of ''Giving Up the Ghost.'' (At one point in the novel, Alison is put on a diet by stern Colette, and she suffers agonies.) ''Beyond Black'' feels like a great, gleeful binge, a wallow in the not-good-for-you riches of this writer's extraordinarily vivid, violent imagination.
This is a dark, dark book, but it's fun to read because at heart it's a celebration of the joys of saying exactly what's on your evil little mind. The heroine might be speaking for the author when she tries to explain to Colette why the hideous Morris is her guide, and why the fiends have come to call: ''Ever since I was a little kid,'' she says, ''I've been trying to have nice thoughts. But how could I? My head was stuffed with memories. I can't help what's in there. . . . And so when you have certain thoughts -- thoughts you can't help -- these sort of spirits come rushing round. And you can't dislodge them. Not unless you could get the inside of your head hoovered out.'' That's the distinctive voice of Hilary Mantel, building from a soft, polite whisper to an explosively funny image -- the comic metaphor that makes life, if not worth living, at least worth writing.
Everything else, ''Beyond Black'' says, is euphemism, flimflam, camouflage. One of the good jokes of this book is that while Alison's powers are terrifyingly authentic, her stage patter is relentlessly soothing and upbeat, her flashes of dire insight muffled, for her public, in cottony cliché: ''It's about impressing them without scaring them,'' Mantel writes, ''softening the edges of their fright and disbelief.'' (Alison scrupulously avoids, for example, using the words ''die'' and ''death'' in her stage appearances or her private consultations with clients.) But Alison, to her horror and to her credit, is finally not capable of softening the edges of her own fright and disbelief, with nice words or nice thoughts or even a nice house in a brand-new development where no one has ever lived before. ''I'd like to live nowhere,'' she says, but she can't: the fiends track her down, and black slime starts to ooze up from the very ground on which the proud, cheesy instant community stands.
Yes, that's a metaphor, too. Mantel has a million of them, mostly of the shocking, grotesque variety, and at a certain point in ''Beyond Black'' you begin to realize that they are her weapons of choice in a continuing (and almost certainly unwinnable) battle against the dreadful blandness of 21st-century English life: a society that in this novel's satiric vision appears to have become a kingdom of euphemism, a place whose organizing principle is the denial of the rude facts of life and death. Flannery O'Connor, herself no mean connoisseur of the grotesque, once wrote: ''All comic novels that are any good must be about matters of life and death.'' That's precisely the sort of mortal urgency you feel in Mantel's extravagant similes and bursting metaphors. This is, I think, a great comic novel. Hilary Mantel's humor, like Flannery O'Connor's, is so far beyond black it becomes a kind of light.
Terrence Rafferty is the author of ''The Thing Happens: Ten Years of Writing About the Movies.''
FOURTH ESTATE £16.99/£15.99 (P&P FREE) 08700 798 897
Beyond Black, by Hilary Mantel
No need to be dead to be soulless
By Nicola Smyth
Published : 08 May 2005
Some novelists don't want you to hit the first page cold. They like to insert an epigraph or two between you and the main event. But how to choose someone to make that first introduction between author and reader? Should you pick Saul Bellow, like Ian McEwan? How about Sophocles (Ali Smith)? Or maybe HM The Queen?
Hilary Mantel's choice isn't purely for comic effect. The royals are among many lost souls haunting Alison Hart, a medium from the "nice part of Slough". She gives Princess Margaret the brush-off, but Diana is another matter. She manifests, wearing her wedding dress, to ask Alison to give her love to her boys, "Kingy and Thingy". She can't remember their names. "You oiky little greasespot," Diana fumes, stamping her feet. "Why don't you just bog off."
Beyond Black was partly inspired by the events of August 1997. Diana's deployment as a petulantly comic turn may leave you feeling queasy, but Mantel makes powerful use of public reaction to the death in her anatomisation of the psychic ills of modern Britain. However, those expecting a denunciation of spiritualism as pure charlatanism should look elsewhere. Though there are fakes and flakes in the trade, Alison is not lucky enough to be one of them.
Al has been seeing spirits since she was a child. An eyeball once rolled along the pavement beside her on the way to school. "What, like, 'Mary had a little lamb'?" asks her cynical assistant, Colette. Her past is only half-remembered. Her mother, too, could see the dead. Men hung about the house, violent, dirty, always threatening: Old Nick in the kitchen rattling a box of matches; Al's spirit guide, Morris - a foul-mouthed, stumpy-legged ex-circus performer - pulling up her skirt during English class. Alison has an unhealthy obsession with knives, and a memory of men passing a line of boxes from her house through its garden. "I don't know what was in those boxes," says Al, "but sometimes I feel as if it's me."
It's difficult at times in the novel to separate the dead from the living. Colette, with whom Al shares a home and a business partnership, is definitely earthside but appears "almost corpse-like" herself. The men who figured in Al's childhood haunt her still from beyond the grave. But were they this side of it when she lived with them in Aldershot? And why do they all seem to be missing body parts?
There is fakery and untruth in Alison's performance, though. She never utters the word "death" to her clients. The spirits she channels through to the public are a collection of mild, cardigan-wearing eccentrics who would not seem out of place in an episode of Rentaghost. Her colleagues are less genuinely gifted but Mantel treats them gently, suggesting, for the most part, self-delusion rather than fraudulence.
Giving up the Ghost, Mantel's recent memoir, recounted her own upbringing in a house dominated by those who had been lost, either to death or, in the case of her father, to a new life. (He disappeared and, as Mantel discovered only after the book's publication, began again with a new family elsewhere.) There is at work in this novel, too, that same strong pull of the past. Alison spends much of the narrative trying to outrun it, but her success will not be without consequences for the others.
Black humour is Mantel's trademark, and, as its title acknowledges, she's at her bleakest here. The psychic trade makes an easy target for scorn, but the punters, feeding like gluttons on grief, are equal partners in it. This is an English landscape which seems fully deserving of Betjeman's friendly bombs: a place of soulless housing estates in the home counties, peopled by xenophobes and homophobes, where the abused are denied help and the homeless turned away from shelter. As Mantel's prefatory epigraph puts it: "There are powers at work in this country about which we have no knowledge." Her Majesty's words, as channelled - supposedly - by her former footman, Paul Burrell, set the tenor of this book very well.