Demonstrating her versatility for readers whose knowledge of Hilary Mantel is limited to the first two volumes of her epic account of Thomas Cromwell’s machinations in the court of Henry VIII is her 2014 short story collection, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, now available in paperback from Picador. And if not quite in every one of the book’s 11 stories, at least in most, she shows herself as comfortable in painting the social culture of contemporary England as she is that of the 16th century. While it may upset some of those readers that a novelist so accomplished in bringing the historical past to life on the page should spend her talent on the present wasteland, Mantel at her best shines through regardless of the period she writes about.
The stories, but for the title piece, were all published in a variety of British magazines from 1993 to 2015. The 2015 story, “The School of English,” is newly included in this latest edition. It is a bleak narrative of an immigrant domestic and what may or may not have been her experience with her last employer. It opens the volume and sets the dark tone that dominates the whole of the book, culminating in the Thatcher story, where a cultivated woman has her flat invaded by an assassin bent on shooting the prime minister as she leaves a hospital. In both cases the stories describe a supposedly cultivated society gone amok.
It is a world where people who should know better avoid right action, sometimes actively, sometimes passively. The stories are often substantial. In “Winter Break,” a couple on vacation takes a taxi to their hotel. When the driver hits something in the road, they make no effort to find out what it was and see if he needs help. In “The Heart Fails Without Warning,” a young girl deals with her older sister’s eating disorders by ridicule. In “Sorry to Disturb,” a story presumably shaped by Mantel’s actual experience in Saudi Arabia, a Brit living with her husband in Jeddah finds it difficult to deal with the local mores.
Some of the stories, though, are quite short: a woman sees or imagines she sees her dead father at a train station; a married man makes sexual advances to a guest at a party he and his wife are hosting with unexpected results.
Perhaps the story I found most impressive was “How Shall I Know You?,” an example of what might be called black slapstick. The narrator is a self-important author invited to speak to a reader’s club and describes her discomforts from the moment she arrives and is left off at a flea bag of a hotel and is unable to find a place to eat. But the comedy is tempered by her feelings for a young crippled girl who works at the hotel who really has something to complain about.
“The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher” may not be Wolf Hall, but what is. In the end these are quality stories that are well worth readers’ attention.
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