The cover of Beyond Black, Hilary Mantel’s first novel in seven years, is emblazoned with the statement ‘There are powers at work in this country about which we have no knowledge’. The claim by Paul Burrell, Princess Diana’s butler, that the Queen whispered this minatory aside to him is almost certainly entirely untrue but the existence of unknown powers is the starting point of Hilary Mantel’s wickedly funny and often unsettling exploration of spiritualism, set in a godless and bleakly materialistic England at the end of the last millennium and the beginning of the new. The protagonist, Alison Hart, is an unusually gifted travelling spiritualist who foresees Diana’s death and is visited by the dead princess. It is typical of the grim humour in the novel that Diana’s petulant and confused spirit tells the crowd of psychics who are clamouring for a word from her to ‘bog off now and let me get some privacy’.
Alison, a size 26 clairvoyant and medium, plies her trade in the wasteland of ‘denatured towns’ on the M25 circuit, where the ‘bewildered dead’ hang around outside burger bars in shopping malls. She is fat and placid, ruthlessly manipulated by her ambitious and razor-tongued assistant, Colette, and mercilessly bullied by