Books

Hilary Mantel
The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher

If the current fashion in short fiction favours pared-back, poignant vignettes redolent in subtext, then two-time Man Booker winner Hilary Mantel didn’t get the memo. The stories in this muscular collection, her second, are hearty, descriptive and internal, and gloriously telling-instead-of-showing.  

Some, like “How Shall I Know You?”, seem autobiographical. A migraine-stricken writer spends an inglorious evening speaking to a book group and then stays in an awful local hotel. It’s self-deprecating and blackly funny. “I stood and breathed in – because one must breathe – tar of ten thousand cigarettes, fat of ten thousand breakfasts, the leaking metal seep of a thousand shaving cuts, and the horse-chestnut whiff of nocturnal emissions.” After a disastrous night, she is “…sure A. S. Byatt would have managed it better: only I can’t quite think how”.  

Other stories seem further from the Mantel we imagine we know. In the wonderful “Terminus” the narrator thinks she sees her dead father in the shops at Waterloo station: “I stared over the chill cabinet with its embalmed meals for travellers. I caught a glimpse of a sleeve, of an overcoat which I thought might be familiar, and my narrow heart skipped sideways. But then the man turned, and his face was sodden with stupidity, and he was someone else, and less than I required him to be.” 

The titular final story, and the only one not previously published, has attracted accusations of poor taste, but perhaps not from people who’ve actually read it. It’s actually a continuation of Mantel’s long preoccupation with the relationships between perpetrators, collaborators, bystanders and victims. Not that Thatcher gets off scot-free, with Mantel at her “off with her head” Tudor best: “I thought, there’s not a tear in her. Not for the mother in the rain at the bus stop, or the sailor burning in the sea. She sleeps four hours a night. She lives on the fumes of whisky and the iron in the blood of her prey.”

Not every story is a winner, though they have sufficient Mantel touches to be worth the time, and the ending of almost all of them seems uncooked, as though she suddenly realised she had 650 fewer pages to play with than usual. None of this matters. Mantel writes as though she alone can see another dimension to our world. Everything seems new through her eyes.  LS

HarperCollins, 256pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 4, 2014 as "Hilary Mantel, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher ". Subscribe here.