Hilary Mantel makes for a good literary celebrity around here: She’s won the Booker Prize twice, and the stage adaptations of her winning books are doing well. She’s progressed so far in the celebrity circus that her views are now “controversial” (the media love bringing up her words about the Duchess of Cambridge, although nobody has bothered to read the whole transcript of the speech in question, so pretty normal procedure there). I suspect she wishes she wasn’t quite so famous by now.
I don’t doubt for a minute that Mantel’s intellect is able to deal with Daily Mail slander, so I like to concentrate on her work. Reading only female authors this year, and trying to get through the heaps of books on my own shelves, rather than buying new ones, I have just re-read Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies. If anything, I love them more the second time around. They are glorious novels. Thomas Cromwell, famous bad boy of history, is transformed into the greatest guy who ever lived, and hell yes would I have married him. (Why yes, I do like to think literary characters are better than actual people.) Mantel’s use of the third-person perspective might make for a good in-joke among literary-minded people, but it lets you see into Cromwell’s mind, and it’s a marvellous show. Apart from that, her language is the kind of thing you want to slowly melt on your tongue and savour. Reading those two books is my equivalent of having a hot bath with extra bubbles, champagne and no children within a twelve-mile radius. Hilary Mantel is exactly the kind of witty, clever person I would love to meet and then feel impossibly intimidated by. I’m already dreading the final part of the Cromwell saga (which isn’t even written yet), because I know I’ll grieve for years once the man is gone.
After reading those two books back to back, I went straight onto the next Mantel, Beyond Black, and… Oh. I did not care for this novel at all. This rarely happens to me; I generally trust an author once I’ve read one of their novels. I was prepared for Beyond Black to be different from the historical novels in more than one respect — it’s about a psychic in the late 20th and early 21st century — but the contrast between those three books is startling. Where the Cromwell books delve into the bustling life of London and those who rule it, Beyond Black paints a bleak picture of the London suburbs. The entire book is so bleak and depressing in its setting that it leaves almost no room for enjoyment of Mantel’s language or characters. Not that there are many of those: the novel follows two women, medium Alison Hart and her assistant and friend Colette on their tours around the country’s psychic shows and their move from one unremarkable home to an even more sterile one. There are several secondary characters, most of them unsavoury ghosts, who do nothing to take the edge of this dreary setting. Alison, while outwardly undisturbed and content, struggles with her traumatic childhood, which she tries to piece together in the course of the novel.
The book’s gimmick is that we know, through Alison, that while the past is horrible, the future is not any better. Alison knows, but never truly voices, facts about the afterlife that haunt her and would haunt her clients if she didn’t put on a fake smile during her “contacts with the departed.” Add to this the precise descriptions of suburban sterility and claustrophobia, and you’ve got the makings of a novel you won’t exactly enjoy as much as find interestingly executed. The fact that Mantel manages to pull this off probably says a lot about her writing talents, so there we are. I still have to say that I enjoy it much more when she uses her talents to imagine a 16th century statesman, but that’s just my opinion.
Then I remembered I’d read another one of her novels, An Experiment in Love, before Wolf Hall was published. I can barely remember what it was about. And now I’m really intrigued — as far as I can recall, this kind of thing has never happened to me. I’ve got A Place of Greater Safety sitting on my bookshelf, waiting to be read, and I’m on to it. It sounds like a novel I’m going to enjoy, so maybe it’s the historical element that does it for me? Because surely the style of an author doesn’t vary so much, depending on the subject matter? I can’t think of any other writer whose work has left me so confused, and I’m eager to hear your stories. Has this happened to you? Have you read any of Hilary Mantel’s novels, and did you enjoy them? Let me know in the comments below.