The provocative title of Hilary Mantel’s recent collection of short stories is what may attract some readers to the book but ‘The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher’ is the final story in a splendid set of ten that each repay close reading. Short stories are like chamber music, or perhaps Lieder, as compared to symphonies or operas as long as a novel. The jewel-like compression of the structure, exposition and development into only a few pages, means that every note Mantel strikes has to have been chosen with great deliberation.
Mantel uses many voices and different narrative styles for each story. There are surprises and slow reveals that make the reading more compelling. It takes you four pages to realise where the narrator is in ‘Sorry to Disturb’. It takes the whole story to reach the climaxes of ‘The Long QT’ and ‘Winter Break’. Each is a slice of life seen through the prism of a vivid and fertile imagination. Sometimes it is a slice of a writer’s life dealing with those parts of the work that are peripheral to, even interfere with, the writing process but ‘come with the territory’ as in ‘How Shall I Know You?’ Each is a gem but there is a wonderful, unique and unexpected ‘flaw’ in each jewel that can make the reader gasp with pleasure.
The title story recounts an improbable and fictional event and, at one point, there is a post-modernist touch that lifts the writing to another plane. Does ‘The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher’ actually happen? I strongly urge you to read all the way through the book, saving this story for last. And once you have done that, then and there or some time later, savour them all again, discovering more nuances than you realised at the first reading.
When, a few years ago, in my MA Dissertation, I discussed the impact of Margaret Thatcher on contemporary fiction, I found that while before Thatcher many novelists feared a left-wing coup led by militant trade unions, after Thatcher, no one had a good word to say about her regime and her person. Mantel fits into this pattern and her sketch of the person is eerily accurate.
Now, Dame Hilary, get back to that third novel of the Thomas Cromwell trilogy we are all waiting for!