The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: Stories
“This is Hilary Mantel at her best and arguably most readable.”
When the former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher died last year, the United Kingdom was divided, with the population either wiping away a tear or chanting “ding dong, the witch is dead.”
The title of Ms Mantel’s collection of short stories caused a similar chasm upon publication, (though one suspects few of the protesters had bothered to read the actual story or if they had, would have failed to appreciate the dark humor it is laced with.)
One of ten short stories, and the only one in this volume not to have been previously published, Ms Mantel not only delivers a mischievous tale for the reader to enjoy but also grants a delicious peek inside the mind of one of our most lauded and accomplished writers.
Although “Sorry to Disturb” is mooted as semi-autobiographical, every one of these stories seems to tell us a little more about the writer, her views and her world: And none more so than “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher.”
Ms Mantel has been forthright about her views on Thatcher and disclosed that the inspiration for this story came from once watching by chance as the then Prime Minister left a private hospital close to her own home, leaving Ms Mantel to her own malevolent thoughts of “What if . . . ?” Her literary answer to that question delivers some beautiful dialogue when the expected plumber morphs first into an opportunist paparazzo before revealing himself as the assassin.
“Comma” is perhaps one of the most touching stories with more than an echo of truth to it, not just for the writer but also for the reader. Who cannot recall a childhood cruelty that at the time seemed to be just playful? “Comma” tells the story of idle time wasted by two impish schoolgirls, and their mission to spy on a nearby house and the mysterious “dark, shrouded shape” swathed from view in blankets. The denouement is a touching bookend to the tale.
Ms. Mantel’s writing is undeniably beautifully crafted and well executed, though at times one senses the imminent appearance of a perfectly constructed metaphor or simile. But it is the dark, roguish humour permeating these stories that is so enthralling, and the sense that we are being graced with more than the usual insight into the author via our narrators.
In “Sorry to Disturb,” we laugh at her aversion to pregnancy and babies. “An older woman confided that her two were adopted; I looked at them and thought Jesus, where from, the zoo?”
The two sisters in “The Heart Fails Without Warning” share far more than their parents understand and as Lola’s anorexic elder sister races towards her inevitable fate, this is made all the more heart-rending by Lola’s caustic observations. “The only thing is, now she’s gone so small I can’t steal her clothes. This was my main way of annoying her and now I have to find another.” “Winter Break” is shocking if not totally unexpected as is “Harley Street,” but both are nevertheless enjoyable.
This collection of contemporary short stories couldn’t be more of a contrast to the weighty historical novels Ms Mantel is famed for. But in both genres she shows the same masterly characterisation and attention to detail. And in both genres, the author demands her readers’ undivided attention before delivering characters that remain long after the last page has been turned. This is Hilary Mantel at her best and arguably most readable.