For some I am sure it is simply the lure of a new Mantel, rather than the rather odd storm that seems to have blown up over the title story of this collection – but I know I’m not the only one who snapped up this book with rather indecent haste. The controversy – if that is what it was – over the final story in this collection has left me rather bemused. Had Maggie still be alive I might have understood it better. It seems as if most of the criticism came from just one person – which encouraged others to wade in, and it was lovely that Hilary Mantel garnered so much support.
The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher is a really superb collection, beautifully written, the prose crisp, elegant and just what I have come to expect from Mantel. Mantel challenges the reader too however, in stories that slowly reveal hidden darkness.
It is of course as I have said before quite hard to review a short story collection, and recently I reviewed some other short stories in small groups – prompting me to wonder to myself whether that wasn’t a better way to do it in the future – a few at a time rather than all at once. However this collection has been so talked about the last couple of weeks, I decided to keep these ten stories together in my review. I am not going to talk about each story in detail – as so many themes are shared, and each story is brilliant in its own way. This small collection, is quite breathtakingly good, Mantel’s astute observations are sometimes dark, her images both powerful and memorable.
All of these stories have a contemporary setting, and there is also, the feeling that in some of them, there is just a touch of the autobiographical. The opening story in the collection ‘Sorry to Disturb’ takes place in Jeddah, where an ex-pat woman has become gradually more imprisoned by her existence in the flat where she spends so much time alone. One day she receives an unexpected, unknown caller, a rather hopeless seeming Pakistani business man Ijaz, who asks to use the phone, does so then rushes off again. Ijaz returns, time and again, and the unlikely friendship that results soon becomes a burden.
“Buried in the grass we talked: myself monosyllabic, guarded, eight years old, wearing too-small shorts of black-and-white check, that had fitted me last year. Mary with her scrawny arms, her knee-caps like saucers of bone, her bruised legs, her snigger and her cackle and her snort. Some unknown hand had, her own perhaps, had placed on her rat-tails a twisted white ribbon, by afternoon it had skewed itself around to the side, so that her head looked like a badly-tied parcel.”
In many of these stories Mantel explores women or girls who appear snared in traps of other kinds. In the brilliant Comma, set during a long energy sapping heatwave, the children who haunt the grounds of a local big house hoping to catch a glimpse of what they have heard is inside, are brilliantly and authentically re-created. Their inquisitiveness, tinged with dumb cruelty, born out of boredom and lack of supervision. The fifth story ‘Harley Street’; the strange and strained relationships between the women who work behind the polished facades are revealed to be surprisingly taut. In ‘How Shall I Know You?’ Mantel brilliantly satirises the world of literary book groups, as a weary writer of biographies, travels from one to another, meeting her host at the station before being deposited at yet another B&B or out of the way guest house. The story takes a slightly different turn as we meet Louise, a tough, bullied put upon B&B employee at a truly nasty B&B. A teenage girl spirals into the trap of anorexia in the quietly powerful ’The Heart Fails without warning.’ ‘Terminus’, one of my personal favourites, a very short story is thought provoking and sad, as a woman glimpses her dead father in the carriage of another train as it pulls out of Clapham Junction.
“Picture first the street where she breathed her last. It is a quiet street, sedate, shaded by old trees: a street of tall houses, their facades smooth as white icing, their brickwork the colour of honey. Some are Georgian, flat-fronted. Others are Victorian, with gleaming bays. They are too big for modern households, and most of them have been cut up into flats. But this does not destroy their elegance of proportion, nor detract from the deep lustre of panelled front doors, brass-furnished and painted in navy or forest green”
(From The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher)
All of which brings me to the title story. An I.R.A assassin gains access to the apartment of a woman (who turns out to be fairly sympathetic to his cause) which overlooks the gardens of the private eye hospital where the Prime Minister underwent surgery in 1983. I will say no more. This is a brilliant piece of writing, and I’m glad I left it till last rather than gobble it up first as I was sorely tempted to do when the book arrived. In this story, Mantel offers us a tantalising possibility – the idea of ‘the door in the wall’ through which of course history could be changed entirely.
“Who has not seen the door in the wall? It is the invalid child’s consolation, the prisoner’s last hope. It is the easy exit for the dying man, who perishes not in the death-grip of a rattling gasp, but passes on a sigh, like a falling feather. It is a special door and obeys no laws that govern wood or iron.”
(From The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher)
So in this already famous story, Mantel doesn’t just give us an alternative history – I think The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher far cleverer than that. It was also a wonderfully compelling, a treat I had looked forward to all day. So after a hard, exhausting day I read it with a welcome cup of tea when I got home about five o’clock, it is a superb conclusion to a brilliant collection. This collection has reminded me that although I have read Mantel’s utterly brilliant Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, as well as A Place of Greater Safety (years ago) I have never read any of her contemporary set novels – I must remedy that soon.