Hilary Mantel’s newest book, a collection of short stories titled The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, has been getting quite a bit of press. It seems many people have decided to take offense at the titular story in which an IRA assassin tricks a woman into letting him into her apartment which has a perfect view, and perfect shot of the back of a hospital through which Thatcher will shortly be exiting. The woman at first is alarmed but ends up being sympathetic and helps the man by showing him an escape route through which he might be able to get away without capture. The story ends just before the gun is fired.
It’s a pretty good story. We are left wondering whether the assassination was successful. Well, we know it wasn’t, don’t we? Mantel isn’t out to rewrite history. So the shot was missed for some reason. We are left to wonder at the aftermath, left feeling sympathetic for the IRA man who fully expects to get caught but shows the utmost concern for the woman whose apartment he took over. And the woman? She’s middle-aged, single, tidy, reliable, caught in the habits of her daily life and not one to rock the boat. But this man gives her a chance to break free from the ordinary without much risk and she takes it. You can read the story yourself if you haven’t already.
Unfortunately all the talk about the one story has overshadowed the rest of the book. Most of these stories are complete stories with beginnings, middles and ends, no brief slice of life stuff that just goes for mood or effect, things happen in these stories. Whether it is an English woman living in Dubai with her husband for his job who inadvertently finds herself being courted by another man or a husband caught kissing a neighbor in the kitchen by his wife the shock of which actually causes his wife to die from an unknown heart defect, the stories feel complete.
Then there is the story “Comma” about two young girls, about twelve. The one who narrates, Kitty, lives in a solid, middle-class household. Her friend, Mary Joplin, who lives just across the street, is from a family of dubious status. But Kitty is friends with Mary and the pair slip away from the parental gaze to go wandering through the surrounding neighborhood. Mary discovers the house of a rich family across a field. At this house they have something that should be a baby but there is something wrong with it. Our narrator and Mary sneak over and spy to try and figure out what the adults refuse to talk about. And while we think the story is about this baby it is really about the relationship between our narrator and Mary and then finally on Mary’s low-class status and how that ultimately affects her life. We catch a glimpse of the two in middle age, Kitty recognizing Mary on the street one day:
It passed through my mind, you’d need to have known her well to have known her now, you’d need to have put in the hours with her, watching her sideways. Her skin seemed swagged, loose, and there was nothing much to read in Mary’s eyes. I expected, perhaps, a pause, a hyphen, a space where a question might follow . . . Is that you Kitty? She stooped over her buggy, settled her laundry with a pat, as if to reassure it. Then she turned back to me and gave me a bare acknowledgement: a single nod, a full stop.
Or the story “Winter Break” in which a husband and wife on a winter holiday, riding through the night in a taxi to their distant hotel are disturbed when the car hits something. The driver bundles it up in a tarp and puts it in the trunk. The couple think it is a goat which they have seen running around everywhere. But they discover something else when they reach their destination.
These stories are about normal people in their everyday lives. Husbands and wives, friends, coworkers, getting on as best they can, scared, alone, confused, making mistakes, trying to figure things out. The most exotic person is a writer in the story “How Shall I Know You?” who is invited by a book group to visit and give a talk. And while the story seems to be all about the writer, like “Comma” it ends up being about something else. Something bigger, that lifts it up from the ordinary to the extraordinary, if not for the characters in the story, at least for the reader who gets to see the big picture.
I’ve only ever read Mantel’s Cromwell books so I was expecting some interesting narrative stylings in the stories. But they are all pretty straightforward. I was not disappointed by that because I don’t need stylistic dazzling in my short stories; they aren’t long enough for me to get used to something unusual and by the time I’d get my bearings I’m afraid the story would be over and I’d be wondering what just happened. This is not to say that Mantel’s style is plain. She uses various structural elements that we are all familiar with: flash backs, foreshadowing, story breaks that indicate the passage of time. What I really liked about many of these stories is that often they were about something other than I initially thought they were about. And those moments in the story when I realized there was something else going on were very pleasurable.
So don’t be put off from this collection by all the press and all the controversy over the titular story. These stories are good reading.