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3.3 out of 5 stars156
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on 28 September 2006
I bought this book after much deliberation - All the papers loved it - but most of the reviews I read on this site were less than favourable. I decided to make my own mind up.

The plot of this book concerns Alison, a gifted but troubled psychic, with a horrific past - touring lacklustre psychic fairs on the ring road around London, offering comfort to the bereaved, passing on messages from the departed - All the while, coming to terms with her squalid, abusive upbringing and dreadful treatment at the hands of her prostitute mother and the squaddies and lowlifes who populated her early life and still torment her after their passing. Morris, her seedy spirit guide, is her departed link to the past she would rather forget.

Colette, her thorny assistant - plays a major part, sceptical and indifferent to her spectral tormentors - she grounds Alison firmly in reality with diets, timetables and a complete lack of sympathy. A host of sardonically characterised mediums and mystics give some comic relief and balance the intense horror of her childhood.

The key to this book is that it's not a thriller or a ghost story - its a beautifully written tale of facing up to your demons - alive or dead, Mantel writes with confidence and her prose is, at times, breathtaking. Her characters are well observed and she breathes life into the dead - Morris and his cronies are believable - horrible small time crooks, with nothing to talk about but the old days and why they can't get a good savaloy anymore. You also realise that the world that Alison inhabits is as dead as the one she can tap into.

My only criticism is a slightly slow 3rd quarter - that being said, once you read the last page, you will miss Alison - you might even miss Morris.
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on 18 June 2010
Reading the other reviews, I can understand why some people are disappointed in this book - the cover implies it is a ghost story and if that's why they bought it, then it won't satisfy them. There are ghosts in the book, lots of them, but it's not their ghostiness that is drawn out, but the dreariness of spending eternity wandering in limbo with a crowd of other mardy spirits. The main character spends her life circling London's insalubrious dormitory towns, night after night spent in Travelodge-type hotels with only her abrasive assistant and revolting spirit guide for company. And she knows that there's nothing to look forward to after death either. It's very funny, but in a way that makes you shiver slightly too and really hope Mantel is wrong!

It's not about ghosts, it's about living people and how we get on, or not, in the world.
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on 6 September 2006
I really enjoyed this book as, unlike so many these days, it had depth and something to sink my teeth into. The reviews here are disappointing and I wanted to give another view. There were points during this book that were laugh out loud funny, as well as very, very sad. Alison is a wonderful character who struggles with what life has thrown at her. She is seeking to remember her past traumas and come to terms with her reality. Colette has hidden depths, but cannot find the heart to find out what they are. I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a well-written and well-planned novel, not just to those who have a vested interest in the 'mystical.' Heart-warming and touching. I was truly sorry to leave Alison behind
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on 5 March 2014
Having read Wolf Hall, and beguiled by the blurb ("the greatest ghost story in the English language" says Phillip Pullman), I came to this book with high expectations which it failed to meet. The problem is that the novel is neither fish nor fowl. It fails as a ghost story as it lacks shocks, tension and atmosphere. It is occasionally creepy, but mostly the ghostly Morris and his pals are merely unpleasant and distasteful. So then what is it? It does not seem to know. It rambles amiably through 450 pages, but does not seem to lead anywhere. Pointless.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 10 May 2013
This book, the author's ninth, was published in 2005, before Hilary Mantel began her trilogy about Thomas Cromwell.

It is set in and around the the London orbital. Alison, Al, Hart is a medium who, along with her assistant, Colette, performs at venues in towns around the M25 - Goring, Aldershot, Shinfield, Didcot, Abingdon, Blewbury, Wonersh, Walton-on-Thames, Orpington, Sevenoaks, Chertsey, Runnymeade, Reigate, Sutton, Long Ditton, Lightwater, Otford, Limpsfield, New Eltham and Blackfen. The first page and a half, setting the scene, is a bravura evocation of the two driving to their next venue, "Heart beats, the tail lights wink. Dim lights shine from tower blocks, from passing helicopters, from fixed stars. Night closes in on the perjured ministers and burnt-out paedophiles, on the unloved viaducts and graffitied bridges, on ditches beneath mouldering hedgerows and railings never warmed by human touch".

Al, who is overweight, first realised that she was different when she was a child and the spirits made her life miserable, almost as miserable as did her mother and her mother's friends, scrawling obscenities on her exam papers. Colette cannot see Morris or his fellow spirit guides but sometimes gets a whiff of their presence.

There are sections and pages of brilliant, flowing prose as Mantel describes relations between people, between spirits and between people and spirits. Morris, a spirit guide from the "other side" with particularly disgusting habits, is a 'this grizzled grinning apparition in a bookmaker's check jacket, and suede shoes with bald toe caps''. Swirling around Alison and Colette is a wonderful group of fellow mediums - Mervin and Mervyn, Mandy, Cara, Mrs Etchells, Psychic Simon, Silvana, Raven and Natasha - who exploit a wide range of skills, including Vedic palmistry, Celtic Sex Magic, tarot reading, psychometry, horoscopes, handwriting analysis, psychic detention and crystal reading, to help clients to engage with the beyond.

The death of Princess Di, about which Al and the other mediums have advance knowledge, is followed by the People's Princess making contact with Al, partly to send a message to her sons "Her painted lips fumbled for (their) names. You tell them, because you know. Give my love to....Kingy. And the other kid. Kingy and Thingy". As a result, few Daily Express readers will find a place for this novel on their bookshelves.

The book goes bowling along until Alison and Colette, now engaged as a live-in partner, decide to move house and the momentum drops whilst we hear about their looking for a house, moving into Admiral Drive and then looking for a garden shed, and dealing with a young man who comes to live in the shed and for whom Al feels responsible. To me this seemed like part of a separate novel and there was certainly a change of gear into the last 100 or so pages. this is the reason for my 4* rating. The stresses that living together and working together puts on the relationship begin to appear at a time when Al is beginning to be as dissatisfied with the direction of her life as she is with her weight. Attempts by Colette to record Al's life story so that it can be published as a book fail when too many spirits send interfering messages.

The end of the book enables Al to understand what has happened to her, that her childhood experiences, long repressed, have conditioned her adult behaviour. It also explains the references that Al's mother, Emmie, makes throughout the book to Gloria, and we find out about Al's father. At the close of the book, with Al en route to Sevenoaks with two old ladies, her future seems rather more positive than Colette's who seems doomed to continue to repeat the same mistakes.

Emmie is every bit as monstrous as Morris and there are many characters who would be wonderful in a film. In fact, I am surprised that this novel, with its obvious opportunity for computer-generated images, has not yet been made into a film.

I am not sure what the response of Mantel's relatively new fans, who enjoyed `Wolf Hall' and `Bring up the Bodies' (and who are already anticipating `The Mirror and the Light', the final part of the trilogy), would be to this novel. It is a very clever, but very different, read.

My final thought is that it is quite depressing to know that in the hereafter we do not get any better. There are one or two people that I will need to keep on avoiding when I pass over.
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on 29 August 2012
Although this novel starts well enough - the first fifty pages are very good - and although the subject matter is interesting and the writing is decent throughout, I struggled to finish this novel.

Without giving too much away, I'll try to explain why.

Firstly, the tone feels a bit off all the way through. I can see what the author is going for, a horror/humour hybrid, but it's a tough act to pull off. Even though I enjoyed the opening scene in the club, the initial appearance of the two main characters raised doubts in my mind - one very fat and one very thin? That's more caricature than character. And this is a problem throughout. Like I said, I don't want to give too much away, but it's hard to describe paedophilia with a smirk on your face.

My second issue was with the plot. As I said, it started well, and I was interested in all the undead milling around, but then, about halfway through, the undead get left behind and the novel becomes a kind of `odd couple' story about the fat and thin woman living together - the thin one trying get the fat one on a diet; the fat one harbouring murderous thoughts about the thin one - what happened to all the dead people?!? (and don't get me started on the nature of these undead, who, on the one hand are vacuous, stumbling creatures, and on the other, cruel and calculating)

Around the last hundred pages, the novel pulls back around, but by that point I had lost interest and had to skim just to get to the end. At 450 pages, it's not short, and by my reckoning the author could have cut 100 pages from the middle without adversely affecting the plot or character development. Not great.

Still, the writing is good throughout, and if you're a fan of the author's other novels, then you may get a kick out of this.
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on 6 August 2005
The story revolves around the strained relationship between two women. Alison, a warm, empathetic lady who makes a living from talking to the dead, and Colette who is her hard-headed assistant. Both characters are so well-drawn that they're likable and sympathetic despite all their obvious flaws.
This is a strange book. A mixture of satire, ghost-story, horror and comedy. The reason it works is that the two central characters are so real and compelling.
One of the great things about this novel is the way that Hilary Mantel treats the world of the medium. She gets a lot of comedy from it, but she never dismisses it entirely. Alison is part entertainer, part therapist and part artist. The art of mediumship it seems is very close to the art of the novelist. It involves imagination and empathy. But Alisons experience of the otherworld is more unsettling that she lets on to her clients and slowly her frightening "spirit-guide" and his friends close in on her until she is forced to confront certain secrets from her past.
This is the first Hilary Mantel that I've read, but after reading it, I've just ordered her entire back catalogue.
What I love the best is her descriptive writing. She describes a modern England that is dark and sinister and flat and stale, but because the writing is so beautiful she gives it a kind of glamour.
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Alison is a medium who earns her living by taking part in psychic fairs along with a sundry group of other practitioners. She is overweight and outwardly confident but she is soon revealed to be surrounded by spirits of men from her childhood. These all seem to be malevolent and a sad, abusive and neglected childhood is gradually revealed. She is joined by Colette, a rational and controlling woman, and a love-hate relationship ensues.

The writing is terrific. Alison's past is shocking and the book is very dark in parts, contrasting sharply with the humour which is frequently "laugh out loud" funny. Even though the subject matter is not one that I would usually care for I found I was swept along by the narrative and in particular by the relationship between the two women and the other psychics.

It is creepy and inventive but not sure if I actually enjoyed it!
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on 25 August 2010
There is a whole universe of people who spend their lives on or near the main arteries of our infrastructure - in motels, service areas, industrial estates and new towns. This book tells the story of two such people, Alison and Colette. Alison is a medium, making her living in a slightly dingy way by speaking to the dead and hearing what they have to say, in small venues, before small audiences. Colette is her assistant. The story explores their relationship, and it is a captivating, riveting read. But the story beneath the surface is one that grips the reader even more: Alison's personal world of ghosts, assorted dead losers, and sinister entities is as real to her as living people are to you and me. These beings accompany her almost everywhere, disturb her sleep, and bring her troubled childhood to the fore at every opportunity. To me it doesn't much matter what actually happens in this story, but instead the wonderful way Mantel weaves the extraordinary and weird into the ordinary lives of her characters. My abiding memory is of having a lot of sympathy and admiration for the character of Alison the medium, battling with unforgiving crowds at her nightly shows, and battling with her own personal demons ("fiends" as she calls them) the rest of the time. Well worth a read.
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on 18 March 2013
I love a good ghost story, I love black comedy and have, maybe an unhealthy intrest in the psychology of murderers. I had high hopes for this book.
Manfel certainly has a vivid imagination, and at times her writing was interesting and inventive. However, in my opinion it tended to waffle on quite a lot, and this became tiresome especially given the very long chapters. Al, the centre of the story suffered HORRIFIC abuse as a child, however she emerges as an even tempered, warm and sucsessful adult. I felt this almost minimised what she had to endure as a child. There may well have been attempts at black comedy, but it was largely lost on me. I found the book heavy and opressive, it dragged on like a migraine. I found the supporting living characters bland, and in the case of Collette- unpleasent. The Feinds were so numerous, I did not pay attention to who was doing what and found them tiresome. The High point of the book came near the end, when it was revealed that Al was more than capable of defending herself. (good effort Al!)But, blimey! It was tough going getting there!!
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