Two women, yoked together by professional need and personal weakness, are driving round London's orbital motorway, a modern ver-sion of hell. They once liked and trusted each other, but now even the tiniest flaws make them mad.
Fat, timid Alison is a medium; thin, flint-eyed Colette is her "manager", attending to her every practical need, from VAT returns to breakfast. Quite apart from their disintegrating relationship, they have a serious problem: Al isn't a fake. Not only can she genuinely converse with ghosts, but she has a deeply unpleasant "guide", a former clown called Morris. The kind of spirit that follows you into the lavatory, Morris is searching for his equally sinister old mates.
This is a splendid start to Beyond Black, Hilary Mantel's tenth novel, and the public seance that follows is hideously funny. Al's suburban audience is suggestible to the point of stupidity; the participants ask whether "Her Majesty the Queen Mother" has been reunited with King George, and happily accept praise from dead ancestors about their new kitchen units. Al has fun telling her audiences what they want to hear, and there is only the occasional ugly note, such as when she pretends to pass on a message from a woman's father and is told: "Tell the old sod to bugger off . . . If I hear any more about my bastard dad I'll see you outside and sort you out."
Al's real ghosts are, however, of another ilk. Some are "marooned in an eternal Sunday afternoon . . . with sod all going on"; but Morris and his mates are taught by Satan himself. As we learn more about Al, we begin to wonder whether the ghosts might be projections of childhood rape and abuse, described in harrowing detail. As in the novels of Mantel's greatest in-fluence, Muriel Spark, it is the satirical, malign, bizarre aspect of the supernatural that predominates.
There are echoes here of the haunted Catholic childhood Mantel described in her outstanding memoir Giving Up the Ghost, but whereas the young Hil- ary made her escape by going to a good grammar school, poor Al hooks up with another medium and begins putting on surprisingly successful shows at psychic fayres. It is at one of these that she meets Colette, who is abandoning a sterile marriage and a career in computing.
The novel's true dynamic is the contrast between the two women, rather than the quest to rid Al of Morris, and it is tempting to think that Mantel has split herself in two to achieve it. Colette gets the razor-sharp mind and sardonic wit; Al gets the size 20 body and the vulnerability. It is hard to warm to either character.
As well as exploring Mantel's customary themes of loss and identity, Beyond Black has aspirations to be a state-of-the-nation novel. Densely written, with confidence and wit, this is a portrait of unremitting ugliness and gloom, with denatured towns and monstrous multi-storey car parks and ghosts queuing up to ask about lost pension books. The new-build housing estate where the women buy their joint home (and are taken for lesbians) is described with savage comedy.
However, both the suburbs and the absurdity of mediums have been mocked better (the latter by Noel Coward). The really disappointing thing about Beyond Black is that not much happens. The ghosts rant on and on, the two women torment each other, and eventually Alison succeeds in getting rid of her repulsive spirits and controlling manager. Mantel's best books have, like Colette, been lean and mean, and her worst have been over-inflated and portentous. It gives me no pleasure to say that, on this occasion, the fat woman wins.