We yield to no one in our admiration of Hilary Mantel. We love the woman. But her new book of short stories The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, is a disappointment.
With the exception of The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, the stories are not new. A standout story, Sorry to Disturb, will be familiar to readers of Eight Months in Ghazzah Street, originally published in 1988 and this section was republished as memoir in the LRB in 2009. Harley St was first published in 1993 and How Shall I Know You? in 2000. Presumably the publishers saw an opportunity in the attention-grabbing title of the Thatcher story , but that story is contaminated by Mantel’s loathing of Thatcher. It’s a wish-fulfilment fantasy dressed up as a story by the addition of the Irish question.
Deft, mordant as they are with the characteristic Mantel slant eye on life, in too many of the stories the machinery is evident. It’s rare for her to seem forced or self-conscious, but at times she does:
…when you make a promise [to speak to a literary society] you think the time will never arrive: that there will be a nuclear holocaust or something else diverting (How Shall I Know You?)
At other times the pleasures of her unique creation of character and place are undercut by the neatness of the conclusion (Harley St) or by a sense that the story is unresolved, that it has not found its centre (How Shall I Know You?).
The other standout is Comma, where we see the Mantel of her memoir Giving Up the Ghost, the child with several skins fewer than the rest of us. Two children, the narrator and Mary Joplin, with her scrawny arms, her kneecaps like saucers of bone, her bruised legs, her snigger and her cackle and her snort squat in the long grass every night to spy on a posh house where Mary promises she has seen something that you couldn’t put a name to.
What sort of thing?
Wrapped in a blanket.
Is it an animal?
Mary jeered. ‘An animal’, she says, ‘an animal, what’s wrapped in a blanket?’ I felt the truth of this; I wanted to insist; my face grew hot. ‘It’s not a dog, no, no.’ Mary’s voice dawdled, keeping her secret from me. ‘For it’s got arms.’
‘Then it’s human.’
‘But it’s not a human shape.’
I felt desperate. ‘What shape is it?’
Mary thought. ‘A comma,’ she said slowly. ‘ A comma, you know, what you see in a book?’
Knowing Mary as we do, we think she’s lying But she isn’t.
The story works very powerfully on the level of the physical, in which things are seen, heard and felt on the skin and in the body, and on the deeper level of the subterranean current of half-intuited emotion and instinct. But even such a good story goes awry at the end, where Mantel adds an extra metaphorical layer of typographical signs, the parenthesis, the dash, the full stop. They don’t feel organic; they lead away from the heart of the story, and they close it on a note that feels too pat.
If the collection attracts new readers for Hilary Mantel, that’s a good thing. Otherwise, it’s overkill. If you haven’t read Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, Beyond Black or Giving Up the Ghost, read one of those instead.