When I first saw The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher I wasn’t sure I wanted to read it – not because of the controversy over the title story, but because I’m not especially keen on short stories. But Hilary Mantel is one of my favourite authors and after seeing her talk with James Runcie on The Culture Show I decided I definitely wanted to get the book.
I enjoyed this collection of stories, which are brooding, somewhat melancholic, dark, disturbing and full of sharp and penetrating observations – brilliant! The title story is the last one in the book and is the only new story, the others having first appeared in other publications. I don’t find it easy writing about short stories, especially the very short ones, and so I’m not going to attempt to write about each of the ten stories in this book.
The first one, Sorry to Disturb, describes the dilemma of a British woman living in Jeddah in Saudi Arabia when she finds herself befriended by a young Pakistani businessman – a situation that was ‘ripe for misunderstanding‘. This is one of my favourites in the collection. It has a claustrophobic atmosphere, as feeling trapped in her flat, yet ‘always observed: overlooked, without being precisely seen, recognised’ she was unable to refuse a friendship, wondering if Jeddah had left her ‘for ever off-kilter in some way‘.
This view of life from a slightly different, skewed perspective and of being trapped is there in all these stories. The children in Comma, for example, spend their days during a long hot summer, ‘each day a sun like a child’s painted sun burned in a sky made white with heat’, drawn to watch what was happening at the Hathaways’ house, the house of the rich, built of stone, with a lofty round tower. In both this and Sorry to Disturb, there is an element of distinct class/cultural difference, of being outsiders.
Winter Break is one of the shorter stories, but complete in itself, unlike so many short stories I’ve read. A childless couple are taking a winter break, the husband trying to convince his wife she wants a child – she’s reluctant as she ‘had reached that stage in her fertile life when genetic strings got knotted and chromosomes went whizzing around and re-attaching themselves.’ A moment of anxiety on the journey to their hotel ends in horror.
How Shall I Know You is a much longer story. I often wonder what it’s like for authors going to venues and talking about their books and this story gives an insight into how it can be a dispiriting experience, staying in obscure and dingy places, feeling forlorn, exposed and generally insufficient. It has a grimly humorous side and underneath there is a darkness and bleakness. As with the other stories in this collection it is superbly written – you are there with the narrator, seeing the scenes, meeting the people and understanding their feelings and emotions.
And then the last story – The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher. Mantel sets the scene – of the ‘place where she breathed her last‘ – a ‘quiet street, sedate, shaded by old trees: a street of tall houses, their façades smooth as white icing, their brickwork the colour of honey.’ Waiting for the plumber to arrive, a woman lets a man into her flat, only to find out he has a gun and wants to shoot Margaret Thatcher from the flat window, as she leaves the hospital behind the flats. Far from being horrified or scared the woman sympathises with the gunman – her first reaction is that she should get a fee for the use of her premises. This too is a dark tale told with a dark sense of humour, and with depth of feeling.
Overall then this is a compelling book, brilliantly written, keenly observed, with the power to chill and shock me. It is one that I will re-visit.
- Hardcover: 256 pages
- Publisher: Fourth Estate (25 Sep 2014)
- Language: Unknown
- ISBN-10: 0007580975
- ISBN-13: 978-0007580972
- Source: I bought it