Oh, Mantel. We’ve got to disclose our out-and-out literary adulation for Hilary Mantel – our conviction that she’s working at a level of stylistic and intellectual prowess that’s beyond most of the writers that we read and otherwise appreciate, enjoy and respect today. While pre-Wolf Hall Mantel was already an acknowledged talent – its most recent antecedent, Beyond Black, was shortlisted for both the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the (then) Orange Prize, and its predecessors in turn raked in a hefty load of awards in their times – she’s since become a household name; and when Bring Up The Bodies (rightfully) earned her the second Booker, she entered that delightful British niche: the Author Begrudged. She’s won too many prizes; she’s taking up shortlist space that other writers could more fruitfully populate; oh, yeah, her – well, of course they gave it to her: that last with a particularly bitter intonation, implying that Mantel’s wins are predictable, not on the basis on her towering skill and the formal and affective excellence of the texts, but on the basis of her being somehow, having won before, an establishment choice, a boring choice. Well, get over it, is our (very academic, very measured) response: you’re not going to find many writers out there as ingenious and inventive, as technically adroit as Mantel: her sentences (paragraphs, stories, chapters, novels) are uniformly beautiful constructions; she’s funny, poignant, demanding and illuminating, whether she’s writing historical fiction, ghost stories, realist tragedies or satirical comedies.
So: The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher. If you’re familiar only with the Cromwell novels, this would be a pretty damn good starting point to get a sense of Mantel’s range. It’s a short story collection, and only her second following 2003’s Learning to Talk, but she’s as adept with this form as she is with breezeblock novels (hello, A Place of Greater Safety). It’s a fairly slight book, then, in physical terms – its ten stories and two-hundred-odd pages a little bulked out by generous line-spacing and page breaks – but that’s not a criticism; a short, taut collection lends itself, we think, to a more memorable read, when each individual piece isn’t at risk of getting lost in a more cacophonous mob of narrators and characters. And the ten stories here do maintain the same bracingly high standard throughout; there’s no weak middle or petering end or dodgy filler jammed in to hit a contractual world-count. On the negative side, mind, every single one of these ten have been published before, and while this isn’t going to be an issue for many readers (prior publication being also the norm with short stories, which usually get their first outing in a journal someplace before being anthologised in book form), the more, ahem, rabid Mantel fans will find no surprises on board. If you found yourself hot under the collar about the lack of ‘newness’ in the most recent Lorrie Moore collection Bark, you might find yourself face-to-face with a familiar bugbear here. Still: they’re great stories, and, as we can testify, they all withstand and reward rereading, so there’s no great points to be scored by carping here. You’ve read them once? Buy the book, read them again: they’re fantastic.
Get on with it, you’re saying. Okay: the opener, ‘Sorry to Disturb’, is a semi-autobiographical story about an aspiring writer brought to Jeddah thanks to her husband’s geology job, who, while living semi-cloistered in an apartment block, unwell, lonely and writing furiously, gets inadvertently entangled in a peculiar friendship with Ijaz, a Pakistani import-export man who’s dissatisfied with his American wife and his ‘third country’ status in Saudi Arabia’s very stratified society. A tense and claustrophobic story of obsession, pity and fear, and more than a little reminiscent of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, it’s an excellent hook for the collection and in itself, a meditative exploration of inspiration and creativity and their often less than glorious genesis: the narrator wonders, towards the end, ‘if Jeddah left me forever off-kilter in some way, tilted from the vertical and condemned to see life skewed’. ‘Comma’, in contrast, is more straightforwardly fictional – two young girls poke their noses in where they don’t belong and class divides and snobbery soon part them – and ‘The Long QT’ is a grumbling, tragi-comic account of a man’s attempted thrust into infidelity at his wife’s barbeque. Both stories demonstrate Mantel’s ability to inhabit diverse characters and voices – the stultifying heat of summer in the former (‘fly strips, a glazed yellow studded plump with prey hanging limp in the window of the corner shop’) and the blinkered middle-class suburbia of the latter (‘He alone by his professional efforts kept them in hand-built kitchens’) are equally well handled; this book isn’t a one-chord trick. ‘Winter Break’ is notable for its ending (which we won’t spoil); a reveal that seems, at first, a twist that you could write off as a gimmick (sensationalist, perhaps disappointing), but which can equally, and with more lingering impact, be read as a nightmarish projection of the main character’s own obsessions, regrets and worries. That ambiguity in interpretation, as well as the themes of marriage and childlessness, echoes the writer’s insecurities and fears in ‘Sorry to Disturb’, helping, then, to subtly unify the collection.
‘Harley Street’ (again, no spoilers) reminds us of the supernatural gymnastics of Beyond Black – it’s perhaps the lightest story in the book, but its hint-dropping construction is still smart as that of a whodunit. ‘How Shall I Know You?’ borrows its reversal-of-fortune structure from the folk tale canon, and ‘Terminus’ plays with ghost stories, memory and mourning. If all three of these veer (successfully) from realism, ‘Offences Against the Person’, with its broken family, cagey narrator and courtroom shenanigans, and ‘The Heart Fails Without Warning’, in which a girl recounts her anorexic sister’s last few months, and the consequent implied disintegration of her family, are very grounded in a thoroughly down to earth domestic unhappiness, though both are spiked with their respective characters’ dry wit. If we were to try to pin an overarching theme on the book, problematic home lives would probably win out, but we think that would be a simplification, anyway; it’s a diverse book with diverse interest.
Finally, the title story, ‘The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher’, deserves a little of its own airtime – for the last-minute furore it inspired on the eve of the book’s publication, if nothing else. The (news-)story goes that this piece had been intended for, and paid for by, The Telegraph, but that paper – not known as the Torygraph for nothing – baulked at the contents at the last minute (hardly shockingly, it’s about an IRA sniper’s taking out of the Conservative Prime Minister back in ’83). The Guardian put it out instead, and the tabloid reaction was predictably and boringly, well, reactionary: what sick individual would wish assassination on poor Maggie, they shrieked. Now, the outcry was, of course, juvenile and unimaginative (they might benefit from a loan of Father Dougal’s reality/dreams chart, for a start), and we’ve got a suspicion that the 4th Estate publicists played it to their advantage – not many short story collections make the headlines, after all, and isn’t all publicity good publicity? We’re not quite calling a Malcolm Tucker on it, but the spin generated here was (accidentally or deliberately) a clever one: how Establishment could Mantel be, now, if she’s writing wish-fulfillment political revenge stories? Anyway: leaving the shrill minority out of it and looking at the actual story – here, Mantel manages to emulate one of Muriel Spark’s best tricks: even though we know, from the start, the outcome of the events she portrays, she still manages to draw the reader through and create a tension that can’t, then, reside in plot, but that rests instead in the genius of her characterisation – of, in this case, her portrayal of a blunt hitman and an unlikely accomplice. Here, we get a Mantel who’s unflinchingly willing to explore, and to explore with extreme elegance, positions that lesser talents and minds shy away from with cries of ‘bad taste’ – but isn’t this the domain and the remit of all good fiction? To startle and unseat us from predictable complacency and unexamined emotional and political ‘truths’? Hilary Mantel isn’t afraid to check out the alternatives – so why are we?
Any Cop?: Required reading.