Monday, January 09, 2006

There's always something joyless

about reading a novel because it's due back at the library (doubly joyless, in fact, because it also means you cared about the book enough to check it out but not enough to want to read it right away). This is all apropos of Hilary Mantel's Beyond Black, which I have renewed several times and now really must return tomorrow. I sat down rather reluctantly with it late last night and was fairly quickly gripped by it, it is a technically immensely skilled book and powerfully imaginative, yet I find Mantel's vision of the world so bleak as to be overwhelmingly offputting. Surely this is her best novel yet, I haven't read all of the others (the first one I read was her great but bloodless French Revolution novel A Place of Greater Safety, on the recommendation of Simon Schama when I was a Young Person & interested in working out how to write historical fiction; I seized on a pile of others afterwards but found them curiously unsatisfactory, that's Eight Months on Ghazzah Street and--probably my favorite of the early ones because it's Muriel Sparkish but without Spark's warmer humanity--An Experiment in Love and one or two others, then drifted through most of the slight/elegant and unbearably depressing Giving Up the Ghost: A Memoir at the end of the summer, again under the constraint of needing to get it back at the library) but this one has a heft none of those others do, not even the French Revolution one. It's funny, it's painful, it's scary, its portrait of the world of modern-day English spiritualism is tawdry and sad and completely persuasive (the same way that Tim Powers always persuades me he has captured what it would be like if we could talk to the dead). And yet, and yet, the things it depicts are so unpleasant that I don't know I would have read it if I weren't a novelist myself and interested in the technique of how you do these things. (There's some character and voice work here that's truly exceptional, only in a horrible way.)

Makes me think I only like books with appealing main characters. That can include the demented and badly behaved noir protagonists of writers like Heather Lewis and Ken Bruen, it's not that they need to be all nicey-nice, but the denaturedness of the life depicted in this novel, the damaged nature of the two main characters and the lack of any prospect for change or improvement (I found the minor lifting of mood at the end of the novel somewhat unpersuasive) make it a painful read.

(Here's a useful collection of related links at the Complete Review.)

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