Hailed as a "writer of subtlety and depth," Hilary Mantel turns her dark genius on the world of psychics in this smart, unsettling novel (Joyce Carol Oates)
A paragon of efficiency, Colette took the next natural step after finishing secretarial school by marrying a man who would do just fine. After a sobering, do-it-yourself divorce, Colette is at a loss for what to do next. Convinced that she is due an out-of-hand, life-affirming revelation, she strays into the realm of psychics and clairvoyants, hungry for a whisper to set her off in the right direction. At a psychic fair in Windsor she meets the charismatic Alison.
Alison, the daughter of a prostitute, beleaguered during her childhood by the pressures of her connection to the spiritual world, lives in a different kind of solitude. She cannot escape the dead who speak to her, least of all the constant presence of Morris, her low-life spiritual guide. An expansive presence onstage, Alison at once feels her bond with Colette, inviting her to join her on the road as her personal assistant and companion.
Troubles spiral out of control when the pair moves to a suburban wasteland in what was once the English countryside and take up with a spirit guide and his drowned therapist. It is not long before Alison's connection to the place beyond black threatens to uproot their lives forever. This is Hilary Mantel at her finest- insightful, darkly comic, unorthodox, and thrilling to read.
Instead of celebrating the mystical side of "sensitives," the people who travel England's contemporary psychic "fayre" circuit, Mantel (A Change of Climate, etc.) concentrates on the potential banality of spiritualism in her latest novel, a no-nonsense exploration of the world of public and private clairvoyance. Colette is a down-on-her-luck event planner fresh from a divorce when she attends a two-day Psychic Extravaganza, her "introduction to the metaphorical side of life." There, Alison, a true clairvoyant, "reads" Colette, sees her need for a new life as well as her potential and hires her as a Girl Friday. As Colette's responsibilities grow, and the line between the professional and the personal blurs, Colette takes over Alison's marketing, builds her Web site, plans for a book and buys a house with her. Colette also serves as a sort of buffer between Alison and the multitude of spirits who beleaguer her. (Alison's spirit guide, Morris, "a little bouncing circus clown," proves especially troublesome.) Mantel's portraits of the two leading characters as well as those of the supporting cast both on and off this mortal coil are sharply drawn. This witty, matter-of-fact look at the psychic milieu reveals a supernatural world that can be as mundane as the world of carpet salesmen and shopkeepers.