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Beyond Black: A Novel (John MacRae Books) Hardcover – April 14, 2005

3.4 out of 5 stars 60 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Instead of celebrating the mystical side of "sensitives," the people who travel England's contemporary psychic "fayre" circuit, Mantel (A Change of Climate, etc.) concentrates on the potential banality of spiritualism in her latest novel, a no-nonsense exploration of the world of public and private clairvoyance. Colette is a down-on-her-luck event planner fresh from a divorce when she attends a two-day Psychic Extravaganza, her "introduction to the metaphorical side of life." There, Alison, a true clairvoyant, "reads" Colette, sees her need for a new life—as well as her potential—and hires her as a Girl Friday. As Colette's responsibilities grow, and the line between the professional and the personal blurs, Colette takes over Alison's marketing, builds her Web site, plans for a book and buys a house with her. Colette also serves as a sort of buffer between Alison and the multitude of spirits who beleaguer her. (Alison's spirit guide, Morris, "a little bouncing circus clown," proves especially troublesome.) Mantel's portraits of the two leading characters as well as those of the supporting cast—both on and off this mortal coil—are sharply drawn. This witty, matter-of-fact look at the psychic milieu reveals a supernatural world that can be as mundane as the world of carpet salesmen and shopkeepers. (May)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Bookmarks Magazine

Beyond Black is just that—so black it reaches beyond the dark and makes the unbelievable believable. A story that normalizes clairvoyance shouldn’t work this well, but it does. Mantel discussed her own experiences with illness and ghosts in her memoir Giving Up the Ghost (2003), but this novel is pure fiction. A seedy sideshow of ghosts (at turns helpful, annoying, and evil), all-too-human characters, a British brand of humor, shrewd commentary on the state of the world, and rich prose make for convincing, if not always agreeable, reading. Although Alison’s flashbacks never emerge clearly, they create some of the novel’s most painful scenes.

Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc.


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Product Details

  • Series: John MacRae Books
  • Hardcover: 365 pages
  • Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.; 1st edition (May 9, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805073566
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805073560
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.3 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (60 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,487,230 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
I'm a big Mantel fan. I loved "An Experiment in Love," "Fludd," and "A Change of Climate." Mantel's gorgeous prose style even carried me most of the way through "A Place of Greater Safety--" her gigantic novel about the French revolution. And so of course I rushed out to buy "Beyond Black" as soon as I saw it reviewed.

As a novelist, Mantel has never been one to tip her hand. She keeps us guessing, for example about the true identity of the title character in "Fludd," and we never know how the protaganist of "An Experiment in Love" gets over her anorexia. When it comes to characterization Mantel shows rather than tells; she relies on evocative imagery, rather than on psychobabble, to shed light on the motivation of her characters. As Margaret Atwood says in her review of "An Experiment in Love," it is "what you don't know" that haunts you after you've finished one of Mantel's novels.

But I think that Mantel goes too far off in this direction in "Beyond Black." She simply doesn't tell the reader enough to make the story hang together. Her background characters-- Alison's psychic colleagues, Colette's ex-husband, even the spectral Morris-- are caricatures. And the two protagonists are incomprehensible. We never really understand what draws Colette to the "psychic business" in the first place, given that she spends most of the novel being so skeptical. And we never really understand what it's like to be Allison, to have the dead tormenting you all the time. The flashbacks to Allison's past are ghastly and beautiful, but the "present tense" narrative is mostly taken up by innane dialogue that never seems to go anywhere.

Both of the reviews I read of this book-- in the New York Times and the Washington Post-- are very favorable, so I'm wondering if I'm missing something. Did anybody see anything in this novel that I didn't?
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Format: Paperback
Well, I must say, after laughing my way through Mary Roach's wonderful "Spook," a non-fiction expose of early 20th century spiritualism, I was ready to give Hilary Mantel a try. I was certainly not disappointed. Mary Roach had me in stitches over cheesecloth nasal packing presenting itself as "ectoplasm." Mantel, on the other hand, gave me a spiritualist one could love, an overweight, insecure and tender-hearted medium who puts up with both worldly and supernatural nastiness until her own good deed frees her.

A recent New Yorker article on Mantel gave me the idea that she might have something to tell me, and I was happily right. I was already prepared for the eerie and inexplicable; Mary Roach, however, prepared me for

mediums fortified with cooking sherry and booking rooms in pubs and bowling alleys. As I was completely new to Mantel, I found myself immersed in her unique mix of humor and ugliness. I was just delighted when a grey sock turned up in Colette's dryer (a very ominous sign), and when Al found her new spirit guides to be two little old ladies who required padded drawers on outings.

I'll read Mantel again, that's a certainty. In the meantime, it's four stars for "Beyond Black"...and an unconditional plug for Mary Roach's "Spook," while we're at it!
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Format: Paperback
One of the primary purposes of fiction is to delve into the thoughts and minds of other people, areas which we don't usually have access to. With a commanding and masterful authority, what Mantel does in this novel is present a character named Alison who is a psychic and can effectively take on the traditional role of the writer: moving in and out of other characters' thoughts, delving into their pasts and oftentimes uncovering things about their lives which the characters themselves aren`t even aware of. Tragically for Alison, her own past is what remains illusive and opaque. Her father is unknown as her mother who used to work as a prostitute can't even be bothered to speculate about his identity. She bears a number of disfiguring, deep scars on her legs, but can't recall what she did to deserve being given them. She's plagued by a spiritual guide who is incredibly crass and low-minded. Although she's a very sensitive and tender individual, she's very strong. She must necessarily develop a slightly self-mocking public persona in order to carry out her work giving psychic readings to a mass audience. Beyond Black charts the painful process Alison must undergo to develop a sense of self worth and a feeling that she is someone who deserves happiness.

Mantel has a magnificent talent for writing about the indignation people feel when trapped within systems which treat them impersonally. She's written about this when describing her experiences in hospital within her insightful memoir Giving up the Ghost. In one scene of Beyond Black, Alison and her business partner Colette buy a new house. The anguish of dealing with an estate agent who assumes they are lesbians and treats them with a perfunctory formality is expertly described. There is also a very funny scene when Alison goes to the doctor.
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Format: Paperback
Like other reviewers, I wanted to give this book more than three stars. Mantel is a writer whom I very much admire and the idea of this book seized my imagination before I even started to read.

The book opens wonderfully, and I was fully engaged within a few pages. The characters are well-drawn. While not sympathetic, Allison and Colette are very real. Mantel engages her trademark blend of sympathy and savagery while describing these women and their damaged lives.

The real struggle with the book comes midway through the story. As though she painted herself into a corner, the trope of revelation through the conversations with Morris falls flat and becomes repetitive. I got and even respect the parody of the "troubled childhood gradually revealing itself" that Mantel uses. It's very funny, and the humor resonates with the real grief of broken lives. This said, the joke goes on for far too long, and by the end of the book I was simply glad that it was over. 100 pages less would have done a lot to tighten the book and correct most of the problems that I had with the build up of the story.

There are some truly brilliant bits sprinkled throughout the book. Humor and pathos and the claustrophobia of life around the highways are the gems of the novel. I wish that they could have been more consistent, or more densely placed.

Fans of Mantel should read it. Be aware that it is not her best work. Particularly given the glowing reviews, it is a bit of a disappointment. Probably obvious if you know anything about Mantel as a writer, but this isn't a novel suitable for younger readers. Much of the material is extremely disturbing and often quite graphic.
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