Do you like psychics? Have you ever been to a psychic fair? or had your palm read, or tarot cards done, or wondered if you have a spirit guide? If you believe the line of most new age spiritual books, everything is happy and light, and all we have to do is believe in love and happiness and it will be that way. I myself have (and continue to do them every day) read tarot cards, and own some crystals, I've been to psychic fairs, had my palm read, and most importantly, I believe that life is a mix of good and bad things, and what I can control is my reaction to them. I've met some good psychics, and had the wonderful fortune to have as my spiritual teacher someone who could hear spirits on the other side. He never foretold the future, he was much more interested in getting people to heal and be responsible for themselves, which I thoroughly agree with. Still, I love the idea of getting a glimpse of the future, though any time the phone rings or the doorbell and I know who it is, or I have a dream that comes true, I do get a shiver. The uncanny is just that, and always will be, for me.
The heroine of Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel is a psychic - or as she and the other psychics in the book call themselves, 'sensitives'. Alison Hart is the real thing. The reason why I asked above if you have ever been to a psychic fair or know anything about psychic ability, is because there is alot of hocum and charlatans out there, some of which is discussed in a very amusing way in Beyond Black. Most of all though, this is a book about Alison, and a journey into what it is really like to be psychic, and how this does not let you lead anything other than a typical life - except that you know things about others, that they don't know or understand. And the ability to see the future, but because it comes in pieces, even to someone who is as gifted as Alison, there is never knowing all the pieces of the future. Where would the fun be in that? Even when we go to see a psychic, we don't really want to know everything that will happen to us. Alison never sees it all, she only gets bits and pieces, so she can't say it all much of the time, though occasionally she can see things through and through, and that is fascinating when that happens.
Beyond Black is much more than just that. Alison had a very unusual childhood, none of which gave her her gifts, but which she has had to overcome and escape . She has had to create herself and her life as soon as she is old enough. Her mother is a piece of work. There is no other word for Emmeline. Probably one of the world's worst literary mothers. She horrified me. All her neglect of Alison has left Alison exposed to the seedy underbelly of life. The worst part of it is, Alison's guide comes from this part of her life. Because her guide attached to her early in her life, well before Alison had any idea she was sensitive, she had no choice. Part of Beyond Black, is Alison exploring what she believes, and how her actions - for good or bad - have consequences. Partly because of her awful early life, she tries to be good, in the hopes she can escape her hideous guide, Morris. And he is possibly the warning that people should be aware of when they dabble with opening themselves up to spirit and asking for guides to come - a very real danger that the guide you get, is not someone who walks a path of light. Who isn't easy to be around, dead or alive. Isn't that scary?
Alison knows a group of sensitives that she does psychic fairs with, and it's fun to see them relate to one another, and talk behind one another's backs, just like any other group of people who have similar interests. I know I've made this sound a heavy book when it isn't; there are moments that are really funny, and when her group of sensitives get together for their many shows together, it's hilarious how they backstab each other, and talk about one another. I also enjoyed how often many of them change what they do in their quest to make money from New Age teachings. Alison is the most gifted of them, and they know it, even if they don't admit it.
Part of the novel is about her relationship with Colette, who she meets during a psychic fair, and offer her a job to be her manager. They live together for 10 years (as friends, and they have a funny moment as they sort this out too), at first idyllic, and then it begins to crumble. The astonishing thing is the problem is Colette. She is not a nice person, not kind, and it's only by the end of the book that I realized that Alison is trying to do good, to balance all the bad in her childhood - to balance the dark with light. She is the unlikeliest of heroines, fat, soft-hearted, spoils herself, but as the layers of her life are revealed, it becomes the least of the things she can do for herself. She is kind to everyone around her, and this becomes the light in the book.
Colette is a possible sensitive, but she is unable/unwilling to open herself to it. She is the polar opposite to Alison. Alison is willing to learn about herself, and see how her past has impacted on her, and take steps to fix it. Colette can't see the truth about anything, although she is a very good manager and organizer, what surprised me was how mean she was. She never learns, and it becomes amusing to see how she doesn't see things about herself . The scenes between Colette and Alison, their relationship and how they talk to one another, are really well-done. It's at the heart of the book, this relationship, and it's only at the end that I saw how Colette fit the picture of what Alison is trying to free herself from. I really liked the ending to this book, what happened to them each, and how true it was.
It is one of the truest accounts of being a psychic I have come across, a very good novel complete with spirits, ghosts, hauntings, spirit guides, and a look at what it means to be be a psychic, how vulnerable you really are. Everyone wants to know, but who gives a thought to what it's like to always be open to spirits? To feel them around you, always pressing to talk, no matter where you go?
I really enjoyed how the tarot cards are used and described, too, how Alison cares for them. There is an amusing scene with Colette trying to read them, and how she can't.
I love how Alison frees herself, finally. There is real evil here, real darkness, and she finds her way past it. It's how she does it that gives this book it's heart and soul. It's quite a journey, and quite a book. Highly recommended, especially for anyone interested in psychic life, or is experienced in it, and for anyone who wants a good satisfying novel for RIP. It is sufficiently creepy enough that you will never look at mediums and their guides in the same way again.
***Edited to add: This was my third book read for RIP VII. I'm having fun with this challenge this year.