Saturday, April 29, 2006

The shortlist for the Orange Prize for Fiction was announced this week. It is an international award for the best English language novel written by a woman and one which has introduced me to some fantastic current women’s writing in the past. The shortlist this year features:

“The History of Love” Nicole Krauss
“Beyond Black” Hilary Mantel
“The Accidental” Ali Smith
“On Beauty” Zadie Smith
“Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living” Carrie Tiffany
“The Night Watch” Sarah Waters

It is awarded on the 6th June (on which day I will be doing a criminal law exam) and the plan is to read the short list before then. I’ve got a head start having read “Beyond Black” by Hilary Mantel a few months ago. I’m going to try and blog about them – would be good to hear about your views on the books as well – but not in academic detail, just my personal response (and I’ll try to avoid any spoilers!).

Despite the critical hype I didn’t expect “Beyond Black” to be funny but it was. The novel follows the shared lives of a medium named Alison, and her assistant Colette. It also introduces Alison’s circle of fellow mediums and her constant spiritual companions. The characters are, without exception, deeply repugnant. Alison herself is tormented by memories of an impoverished and abusive childhood and the spirits who gradually gather round her as the novel progresses are all related in some way to this past. The novel begins with only one spirit guide – a lewd and sexual man named Morris. He gradually unites with other spirits from his seedy life on earth and their presence pervades the book and dominates the other characters. Alison herself is unable, and perhaps unwilling to escape, while Collette secretly desires contact with the spirits. Far too prosaic she will never achieve this contact – thin, boring, beige she contrasts sharply with fat, flamboyant, colourful Alison but neither are appealing. At the beginning of the book the spirits seem genuine but as it progresses a question mark hangs over these characters. The depths of abuse to which Alison was subjected reveal themselves and the spirits become embodiments of a past she can neither escape nor come to terms with.

Nevertheless the book is funny. This humour arises from the very darkness of the subject matter of the novel. Mantel is deeply perceptive in her characterisations and the weaknesses and sillinesses of the characters, in particular the narcissistic Colette are exploited to effect. Furthermore humour highlights the ghastliness of the situations the characters find themselves in. Alison’s spirits are almost exclusively male, and their sexual presence is both grotesque and oppressive. Morris is often to be found masturbating. This is simultaneously humorous and horrific. Nobody but Alison can see him. Her field of vision is perpetually dominated by Morris and his sexual obsessions while those around her are oblivious to what is going on. This difference is highlighted when, at one point, Alison shouts out “what testicles?” I laughed out loud when I read this, but it is also sinister. Collette cannot see what she is being subjected to and in fact refuses to see it. Sexual acts are seedy and humorous but they are also frightening. The clamouring voices of the spirit world represent the memories of abuse that Alison cannot escape from, and the power these men have continues to dominate her life.
My mom’s book group hated this novel. I’m not sure why. One member refused to read it because she is a Christian and disagreed with spiritualists. This book certainly is an exploration of the possible horrors that a spirit world could contain. Evil triumphs over good at every point, and the devil and his gang take over and attempt to infiltrate the living world in the most horrific of ways. However this novel is about much more than spiritualism. The horrors of the spirit realm merely reflect the horrors of our own society. The bigots in a hellish suburbia, the abusers, the dominating and destructive patriarchal structures as represented by the nightmarish Constable Dellingbole. Mantel’s novel is dense with meaning, yet nevertheless remains an enjoyable read. I couldn’t put it down and would highly recommend it to anyone.



At 12:47 pm, Blogger Fox VS Hedgehog said...

Still am a little shocked at the Sarah Waters nomination, although I haven't actually read her latest book, everything else she's written has been utter pap. Let me know whether that one is any different.

At 4:31 pm, Blogger la somnambule said...

I actually haven't read anything by her before so will do!


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