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Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel

Beyond Black

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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.

Sarah Broadhurst's view...

A rich and vibrant, emotive and evocative tale of a medium with a weight problem and a control freak with a husband problem. An unlikely pair who find solace and purpose with each other until the final crisis drives them apart. Throughout we are given a very different view of ‘spirit guides’ and loved-ones from ‘the other side’ than the normal portrayal of beneficent and happy ‘departed’ with messages of encouragement and love. The ghosts here are uninvited and unpleasant, malicious, wicked and jealous. The characters are brilliant, the whole work a great read which deserves to be read a second time.

Comparison: Julie Myerson, Rachel Cusk, A M Homes.
Similar this month: Sabina Murray, Ian McEwan.

If you like Hilary Mantel you might also like to read books by Julie Myerson, A M Homes and Rachel Cusk.


Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel

Alison Hart is a medium by trade: dead people talk to her, and she talks back. With her flat-eyed, flint-hearted sidekick, Colette, she tours the dormitory towns of London's orbital road, passing on messages from dead ancestors: 'Granny says she likes your new kitchen units.'

Alison's ability to communicate with spirits is a torment rather than a gift. Behind her plump, smiling and bland public persona is a desperate woman. She knows that the next life holds terrors that she must conceal from her clients. Her days and nights are haunted by the men she knew in her childhood, the thugs and petty criminals who preyed upon her hopeless, addled mother, Emmie. They infiltrate her house, her body and her soul; the more she tries to be rid of them, the stronger and nastier they become.

This tenth novel by Hilary Mantel is a witty and deeply sinister story of dark secrets and forces, set in an England that jumps at its own shadow, a country whose banal self-absorption is shot through by fear of the engulfing dark.


‘As a piece of prose it’s magnificent, but as a work of imagination it comes right out of the heart of the cold uncanny depths. It’s one of the greatest ghost stories in the language, but it’s far more than just a ghost story – it’s a novel of desperate truthfulness – a majestic work, truly.’ Philip Pullman

‘Hilary Mantel has done something extraordinary. She has taken the ethereal halfway house between heaven and hell, between the living and the dead and nailed it on the page.’ Fay Weldon, Guardian

‘Laceratingly observant, a masterpiece of wit, heavy with atmosphere. It is also gloriously insolent and slyly funny: full of robust, uncluttered prose and searing moments.' Independent

About the Author

Hilary Mantel

Hilary Mantel is the first woman and the first British author to win the Man Booker prize twice and the first author ever to win the Man Booker Prize and Costa Book Award in the same year. At 60, she is only the third double winner alongside J.M. Coetzee and Peter Carey. She is also the first person to win the prize for two novels in a trilogy, following her success in 2009 with Wolf Hall.

Hilary Mantel was born in northern Derbyshire in 1952. She was educated at a convent school in Cheshire and went on to the LSE and Sheffield University, where she studied law. After university she was briefly a social worker in a geriatric hospital, and much later used her experiences in her novels Every Day is Mother's Day and Vacant Possession. In 1977 she went to live in Botswana with her husband, then a geologist. In 1982 they moved on to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, where she would set her third novel, Eight Months on Ghazzah Street.

Her first novel was published in 1985, and she returned to the UK the following year. In 1987 she was awarded the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for travel writing, and became the film critic of the Spectator. Her fourth novel, Fludd, was awarded the Cheltenham Festival Prize, the Southern Arts Literature Prize, and the Winifred Holtby Prize. Her fifth novel, A Place of Greater Safety, won the Sunday Express Book of the Year Award.

A Change of Climate, published in 1993, is the story of an East Anglian family, former missionaries, torn apart by conflicts generated in Southern Africa in the early years of Apartheid. An Experiment in Love published in 1995, is a story about childhood and university life, set in London in 1970. It was awarded the Hawthornden Prize.

Photograph © Jane Bown

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Book Info

Publication date

3rd October 2005


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Harpercollins Publishers


Paperback (b Format)
480 pages


Literary Fiction
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Modern & contemporary fiction (post c 1945)



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