Something is rotten in 21st-century Britain. Radioactive waste is washing into the water supply and Japanese knotweed is choking the grasslands. Paranoia about terrorists, gypsies and undesirables creeping through gardens and infiltrating the sheds is spreading through new housing estates.
In Hilary Mantel's novel, Alison Hart is a psychic who wants to do a good deed in a cruel world. Described as being of an 'unfeasible' size, 'soft as an Edwardian, opulent as a showgirl', she is partnered by her depressed, flint-hearted assistant, Colette. Together the two women travel the clubs of Britain, with Alison passing on the messages of the dead. What is it the dead want to tell us?
Mostly about buttons lost down the back of sofas, and their opinions on our choice of kitchen worktops. The interests of these dead spirits circle around health and knitting. The audiences are mostly female: 'Men, on their own behalf, were not very much interested in fortune and fate. They believed they made their own, thanks very much.' But when Alison is not on stage, it's a different story. Then her spirit guides speak to her in decidedly more ugly terms.
As the novel progresses, the voices of these spirit guides become more clamouring. Their origins in Alison's derelict childhood alert us to secrets that she is not willing to share. Like all mediums, she avoids the word 'death', preferring to speak of people 'passing over': 'even though they deserved frightening, she would never, when she was with her clients, slip a hint or tip a wink about the true nature of the place beyond black.' Alison has seen that place and it's becoming harder for her to fend it off.
This is an England of 'perjured ministers and burnt-out paedophiles', 'unloved viaducts and graffitied bridges', richly deserving of the flaying Mantel gives it: ('This sceptred isle/ this other Eden/ My sceptred arse' goes the dialogue between a couple of Alison's spirit guides). …