The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher is a collection of ten stories, sharp and self contained, full of imagination and image, and is so crisp. There is a blurring between fiction and memoir, making it hard to distinguish where Hilary Mantel is dredging her own life for stories, and when is pure creation. I suppose all stories fall somewhere in between, but researching Mantel’s history, it is so clear that some stories have come straight from her own experience, which makes others, like the title story, shock a little more with their apparent shared reality.
Mantel has become internationally recognised as one of the best living writers today. Reading Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, I thought she had such a sense of character: there is an exactness to her writing; you know Mantel knows the context, the space, the purpose behind what she is saying, but she gives such diversity and strength to the voices. These skills give her a gift of imagery, and even in these short stories, away from space allowed within a novel format, Mantel still manages to write with the same skill at transporting the reader, the same sharp observation, the same immediate image. It’s fantastic.
The first story, “Sorry to Disturb” feels like a short memoir piece, set in Jeddah in the 1980s. Our protagonist is the wife of an expat, a writer, whose reality is shaped and misshaped by her severe illness. Furniture moves itself in the night, the coffin-like walls hold her in the darkness. Into this world, the cockroaches are ever-present, the heat like a person in the room, and Muhammad Ijaz bursts into her home. Working in “Import-Export”, and somewhat of an expat himself, Ijaz oddly latches himself into her life, dropping in and out as he pleases, using her and her husband as required.
There’s a detachment here: we never know why Ijaz keeps coming around, and we never know why she keeps opening the door: as her journals reveal it seems she doesn’t really know either. The story is told as a phase in her life, Ijaz fading in and out of the phase itself. There is a pathos, a quiet tragedy, in some elements of this story, but in other moments there is a fierce rage as her skills as a writer are undermined by her gender. There is humour, frank observation, and a dreamy quality coming in and out as the severity of her illness waxes and wanes.
In a later story “How Shall I Know You?”, pushed by a general malaise and traveller’s life, our unnamed protagonist – perhaps the same as earlier – has travelled to present to a local book club. Arriving in the evening, the writer dreading the inevitable showing of dog-eared Sci-Fi manuscripts by book group members for her immediate perusal and opinion, the secretary of the group assumes she has made other arrangements for dinner. She internally retorts:
I don’t know why he should expect anything of the sort, but I made an instant decision in favour of starvation, rather than go to some establishment with him where members of the Book Group might be lurking, under a tablecloth or hanging from a hat stand, upside down like bats.
The image drawn is so immediate, so ridiculous, so funny, you immediately sense the desperation of the book club members, the dread of the writer, the sheer bleakness of the visit and its prospects. Mantel is funny, cutting, observant, and communicates this all in just a moment.
In a quieter moment in “Comma”, this time our narrator is younger girl, spending her long summer days outside: “When you were called in at last you sat under the electric light and pulled off your sunburnt skin in frills and strips”. I read this sentence over and over, I relished it, I needed to get my tongue around it and say it aloud. It is followed with “There was a dull roasting sensation deep inside your limbs…”, and with these two sentences such a phenomenal longing filled me to have that same hot summer ache in my arms. Mantel makes this so evocative, so quick.
It’s hard to know how to summarise this collection of stories. Humourous and poignant, Mantel captures and wraps up our human nature so neatly in her sentences, communicated so sharply, briefly, perfectly. She possesses a pure, acute skill for characterisation. It’s interesting to think on how many of these stories are memoir, or fiction; but this knowing distraction from categorisation allows more space for the real and the ridiculous to come through in this wonderful collection of just stories.