by Hilary Mantel
As the title suggests, this is very dark indeed. A middle-aged psychic medium is in crisis. Tormented by cruel spirits from the other side, her life becomes intolerable. As the book progresses we discover the appalling abuse she suffered as a child and the suffering she is now forced to live with begins to take on quite another interpretation.
Alison has, since adolescence struggled with her gift as a psychic. Now in middle age she takes stock of her life as a successful medium and takes on an assistant Colette to help with running her life. This oddly matched pair take on the various problems of bookings in nameless village halls, conference rooms in motorway hotels and a grueling schedule of appearances and meetings. Ever present is Alison’s loathsome spirit guide a man who was base and cruel in life and even more so in death. He torments and corrupts Alison at every opportunity, and his gang of like-minded fiends exert an enormous and sinister power over her, demanding all her strength to repel them. These rebellious, sadistic spirits are as real as Alison, Colette and the rag bag community of psychics and mediums. Here lies the real subject of the book – the spirits she endures on a daily basis are very similar to the men who tormented her throughout her childhood. As Alison assesses her extraordinarily abusive upbringing, and her mother’s role in permitting the abuse to occur, so the vile voices take on quite another interpretation – as a manifestation of her trauma and possibly the signs of schizophrenia.
The book poses many questions about how one is to survive childhood abuse. Alison has a dual struggle – firstly to try to make sense of the past piecing together the half-remembered narratives and forgiving her atrocious mother. Secondly she must subdue the terrible voices and protect herself against the harm they may do her. To the reader it becomes clear that the two activities are interdependent, but it is only with cognitive ability that this heroic task can be achieved and we are unsure how much Alison is prepared to accept.
The novel is set against a backdrop of unbelievably grim landscapes, forgotten hinterlands beyond the M25 motorway. Mantel makes some astonishing descriptions of these wastelands – the first page is a wonderful piece of descriptive writing. This book is so powerful, so beyond black that it cannot help but make meaningful discussions for any group. However, as a word of warning, it is very adult and deals with terrible sadness and struggle. Mantel’s light touch seduces the reader into a world of ghosts and mediums, but what lies beneath is very dark and bleak, a very human struggle against the damage done by a truly dreadful past.
Read our interview with Hilary Mantel.