Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel | A dark but funny read

Hilary Mantel came to my notice back in 2012 when I fell in love with Wolf Hall. Since then, I’ve read a few of her earlier novels  including A Change of Climate and  Beyond Black. But, so far, nothing really matches Wolf Hall for me.

Beyond Black is about a medium called Alison Hart and her business manager, Colette.  Alison plies her trade in towns outside London, working with audiences and passing on messages from their dead relatives. She avoids the capital because she doesn’t like to work with ethnic communities who believe in reincarnation.

There are a lot of charlatans in Alison’s line of work, but she really does see dead people. She’s haunted by them, and not in a good way. She can’t get away from the dead and she sees things that her clients are better off not knowing.

This isn’t Hammer House of Horror scariness — if anything it’s more disturbing — because the dead continue to have the same traits they had while living. “You don’t get a personality transplant when you’re dead. You don’t suddenly get a degree in philosophy,” Alison tells Colette.

So Beyond Black is dark — particularly where Alison is haunted by the men her mother was involved with during Alison’s childhood. But it’s also funny, not least when Princess Diana puts in an appearance.

To some extent, Beyond Black reminds me of Will Self’s How the Dead Live, although I found Self’s book a faster and funnier read.

Beyond Black is published by Fourth Estate. Thanks to Wicklow County Council Library Service for the loan of a copy.

Genuine Fraud by E Lockhart

Like Lockhart’s earlier work, Genuine Fraud explore themes of privilege, truth and lies.

In an author’s note, E Lockhart lists her sources of inspiration for Genuine Fraud.  They include Victorian orphan stories, con artist tales and narratives of class mobility. She talks about stories told backwards and tales of female ambition. Much of this filters through into Genuine Fraud, the story of Jule West-Williams, a young con woman who exploits friendships for personal gain.

Jule is rather like the orphans in Dickens who engage in crime out of necessity. She sees herself as an action hero, physically and mentally strong yet she’s also vulnerable, living on her wits and in constant danger of being uncovered as a fraud.

Like Lockhart’s earlier novel, We Were Liars, Genuine Fraud explores themes of privilege, truth and lies. It’s a story of good and evil, privilege and want, elite and envy. It’s dark and twisty — a tale of self-invention and self-deception. It’s a fast and engaging read.

Jule spends a lot of time worrying about her origin story. She struggles between what she tells herself and what she tells others. Is she disturbed or is she simply dangerous? That’s the question you’ll ask yourself if you decide to read Genuine Fraud.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy via Netgalley.

I am, I am, I am — Seventeen brushes with death by Maggie O’Farrell

This week, thanks to Wicklow and Waterford City and County Libraries, I got my hands on a copy of I am, I am, I am – Seventeen brushes with death by Maggie O’Farrell. Although I have read O’Farrell’s fiction in the past, this is the first of her non-fiction titles I’ve come across.

It’s a tense and thought-provoking account of seventeen near death experiences. What comes through strongly in each episode is O’Farrell’s genuine appreciation of life and its fragility.

Some of her near-death experiences, such as her childhood illnesses are outside of her control. Others, come from foolish or hasty decisions. In some situations, she is aware of the danger she faces in the moment. In others, that awareness comes later as she reflects on the experience.

Each experience is life enhancing in the sense that it strengthens appreciation of life. And, as O’Farrell puts it, often the things in life that don’t go to plan are the most formative in the long run.

Survival is thanks to a combination of luck, circumstance,  personal skills and, occasionally, the intervention of others.

Patterns repeat

However, I was also struck by the similarity in some of the situations she encounters. This made me think about how patterns repeat in life when we make the same kinds of choices that we’ve always made. The older I get, the more I notice this in myself and my friends. So much so,  I wonder sometimes if we are hard-wired not to learn in certain situations. Or, perhaps, as seems to  the case for Maggie O’Farrell, the lure of adventure or freedom outweighs our sense of risk.

Brushes with death

So, over the course of a lifetime, most of us have occasional brushes with death through ill-health, accident, carelessness or being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  O’Farrell’s seventeen brushes with death, are a reminder of both of the fragility of life and the rewards of living bravely.

Other titles by Maggie O’Farrell include The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox and The Hand That First Held Mine.