A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Anyone in the UK with a passing interest in the book world cannot have be able to avoid hearing something about the controversial publication of Hilary Mantel’s latest short story collection, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher. When it came out at the end of last year, attention understandably focused on the story which gives its name to the whole collection. It was, it seems, based on a time that Mantel was able to see the then-Prime Minister emerge from a hospital stay from her window in a flat opposite. She hated Thatcher’s politics – not an unusual opinion in the 1980s – and fantasised about offing the politician from her vantage point.
Unsurprisingly, some of the right-wing press were outraged. This, along with comments about the Duchess of Cambridge Mantel had made some time previously, was enough to bring some of Thatcher’s admirers to a fomenting crescendo. Former colleagues of Thatcher went so far as to question Mantel’s sanity and call for the police to investigate her. Then, to top it all off, BBC Radio 4 announced that it would be broadcasting the story in their Book at Bedtime slot! Well, some of the papers were just beside themselves. Mantel referred to the negative reaction quite succinctly as “froth and bile”, and the argument will no doubt follow her for a good while yet.
The irony is that the eponymous story is, I think, far from the best in the collection. That title belongs to one of two stories, though I haven’t been able to settle definitively on a winner. The first story in the collection is very strong indeed, and that is perhaps because it originally appeared as memoir in the LRB a while before. It is called ‘Sorry to Disturb’ and is about the narrator’s time in Saudi Arabia in the 1980s, when a US-educated Pakistani businessman took it upon himself to start visiting her at her home most afternoons. What started as British good manners in answering the door to him develops into an oppressive relationship between visitor/intruder and visitee/intruded upon.
December 6th: ‘Ijaz stayed too long,’ the diary says. Next day he was back. After the way he had spoken of his wife — and the way he had compared me to dear old Patches from his Miami days — I didn’t think I should see him again. But he had hatched a scheme and he wasn’t going to to let it go.
It is a concise and tight examination of a woman feeling caged by a man who has decided that she is to become his next wife, despite the fact they are both already married and she really wants nothing to do with him. The tension is high despite an element of the ludicrous; Ijaz is both laughably deluded and really rather threatening.
My other favourite is the heartbreakingly sad story ‘The Heart Fails Without Warning’, a portrait of a family struggling with their oldest daughter’s worsening anorexia. It is narrated by the younger of the two sisters, who deals with her sister’s increasing frailty by poking fun at her when it is really clear that she actually loves her deeply and simply doesn’t know how to process the situation, never mind help.
Mantel’s skill as a writer is well-known, not least because of the extraordinary success of Wolf Hall and its sequel Bring Up The Bodies. What her short stories highlight that those fine novels cannot is her enviable ability to create utterly believable narrative voices for a whole range of different character types: old, young, man, woman, bitter, happy, sad… And while one or two of the stories in The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher are not as strong as the others (‘Terminus’, I’m looking at you), it is a short, sharp, trangressive display of the dark, the twisted, the sad, and the lost. Ignore the “froth and bile” of the Thatcher controversy and just enjoy what Hilary Mantel can do with words.
Hilary Mantel: The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher (London: Fourth Estate, 2014). RRP £14.99, ISBN 9780007580972