There are ten short stories in Hilary Mantel’s latest collection, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, all of them published, mostly in the Guardian and the London Review of Books, between 1993 and 2014. The title story, a story with almost everything in its title, sets course for a gale of outrage and sails headlong into it. I propose that we ignore this, or that we at least deal with what the title is saying rather than with what it says. With this title, Mantel is saying, “I am not Alice Munro. I am not even AS Byatt. I may amount to less, or more, than these writers, but I forbid you to take me seriously. I am the author of Beyond Black.”
Beyond Black, a comic novel from 2005, is both a great work of literature and fun. Real fun, in the way that lovely old sitcoms are fun. A massive and yet quite genuine eccentricity rolls clean through it. The prose is nonetheless beautiful and devised with outstanding control. By comparison, Mantel’s next two novels, Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring Up the Bodies (2012) seem somehow like commissions. They are historical novels and so Mantel has to be sensible, knuckling down to the prose and, like Holbein, standing back from the frames. With The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, Mantel returns to showcasing the whole of her prose and setting her comedy at liberty.
Dear me, but shooting dead an elected Prime Minister, this doesn’t sound like “fun”! In 1984, a year after Mantel’s story is set, the IRA blew up Thatcher’s hotel and murdered five people. This doesn’t sound remotely amusing!
Let’s retreat before this and then attack again from the side. “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher” is ultimately about boredom and fantasy. The last story in the collection, its premise is modelled upon the first, “Sorry to Disturb.” In both tales, a female writer is waiting in her apartment, which is, for a writer, at once a home and a workplace. Writers are not like us – they have no workplace colleagues, no office chatter, and the only new people they ever befriend are plumbers and window cleaners. I can imagine Mantel seated deep in the well of some overfamiliar household, pausing before her typewriter and listening to the silence of her home. If only something would happen, she thinks, if only somebody would knock on the door. In both tales, strange men materialise on the doorstep. They are blatant fantasies, as are the stories that they bring with them: a Pakistani businessman, wishing to borrow the telephone, who will open up his entire life to the housebound housewife; and a plumber who turns out to be an IRA man and intent upon shooting the Prime Minister dead from the narrator’s window.
“…this is what people usually dream, who work all week,” Todd, the receptionist in the story “Harley Street,” has to explain about her dream of “coming or going” to work. Earlier, this character had absent-mindedly fantasised about how her employer could “make a zombie.” “…you bury them for a bit, dig them up, slap them round the head to stun them: and they’re a zombie.” Mantel’s own prime zombie, the Machiavellian supremacist Thomas Cromwell, struts and frets his hour anew around vast historical novels. Margaret Thatcher, on the other hand, “toddles” into Mantel’s short story.
Our zombie raiser is currently taking a break from killing Cromwell all over again, in the third of her Tudor novels, to squash this mini zombie. The Mirror and the Light, which is due to be published next year, is dedicated to historical fact, but “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher” is not so much alternative history as fantasy history. When living in Windsor in 1983, Mantel one morning spied Thatcher from her window. The Prime Minister was leaving a private hospital where she had been undergoing eye surgery. The fantasy practically dreamt itself and surely anybody in Mantel’s circumstances would think the same thing: “Immediately your eye measures the distance, I thought, ‘If I wasn’t me, if I was someone else, she’d be dead’.”
This story is wry and gimmicky. The narrator morally favours Thatcher’s assassination; the gunman is squarely determined. These motives are realistic, but the realism of the story is nonetheless remote. It has the weightlessness of a hallucination or a very vivid dream. In the teeth of the title, it does not in fact portray Thatcher’s death. The story leads up to the unreal moment when the assassin pulls the trigger, whereupon it ends, entirely in the manner that a dream would. There is nothing to confirm that the assassin, even as a dream figure, will hit Thatcher. Incidentally, the failed Brighton killer, Patrick Magee, is today as free as Mantel, having been released in 1999 consequent to the Good Friday Agreement.
The power of Mantel’s prose is earned from a transaction between freedom and control. Her writing seems to be airy and flouncing, but every tiny whisker is calculated. Sometimes, as in “Comma,” she uses a simile too many and we are told that the grass “etched white lines, like the art of a primitive tribe, across our bare legs” and that “laundry hung like flags of surrender from washing lines.” But fakeness is always speedily redeemed with gold, and moments later the narrator is describing with singing reality how, “you sat under the electric light and pulled off your sunburnt skin in frills and strips.”
With this observational writing at her command, Mantel’s short stories are ripest when they are most realistic. Or, to put it another way, she often writes best when she writes about nothing. “How Shall I Know You?” one of the stories of substance, cuts off a thick slice of random life. A tottering caricature of Mantel visits a small English town where she is repulsed by everything that she encounters. This tale buzzes with Plath, with her lurid feminine queasiness. The Mantel visitant is hypochondriacal and absurdly snobbish; everything that she writes still seems to be quite correct, and you feel guilty at enjoying this story so much. The realism becomes so nervously energised that the narrative breaks through a sort of pain barrier, until it resembles HP Lovecraft’s The Shadow over Innsmouth (in which the hero spends the night in a town full of fishy mutants). Yet the snobbery is authentic: Mantel’s mockery of herself is mostly affectionate and this is just how she is.
With so much apparent autobiography within this collection, you might think that we are on terra firma. But I agree with James Lasdun, a first-rate short story writer recruited by the Guardian to review The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, that Mantel sometimes resorts to symbolic devices which are “superimposed; a way of seeming to bring everything together at the end, when the linkage is in fact often rather tenuous.” Confusingly, however, this defect mars “Sorry to Disturb,” a story which Lasdun lauds as “easily the best in the book.” “Sorry to Disturb” is not bone dry realism, with some spurious allegory about poltergeists and moving streets, which is not even realistic on its own terms, being applied to an otherwise wisecracking demolition of Saudi Arabia’s suburbia and its magnificent heebie-jeebies. The story also spells out its own moral, albeit in a single line, when the narrator admits that, “I was sheltering behind the mores of this society.” This work should be left to us.
Whereas the vampirism within “Harley Street” is sweet and unobtrusive, there is a mite too much contrivance mixed into “The Heart Fails Without Warning.” The distant father would be more sinister without the discovery of his dog-woman fetish; there would be more glory to Morna’s death if she didn’t end up posing with the ghost of a dog. The story prevails because of the centrepiece relationship between its two sisters: the supposedly “heartless” Lola” is the only one to understand and accept her sister’s suicidal instinct. Somehow this sub-zero story is helped along, rather than undermined, by the cold relish that Mantel takes in the family’s “squeezed middle” ghastliness and the smallness of their lives.
“Comma” ostensibly involves two girls spying on a burns victim, but this story comes to seem like a dud, because the comma is a thing of wonder rather than of horror. Ambiguity still ties the story up in a beautifully elegant bow: is the creature in the wheelchair horribly disabled or a madwoman’s scarecrow child, like Mother Rigby’s Feathertop in the legend by Nathaniel Hawthorne? Is Kitty sharing in Mary’s vision of her own future and, in this respect, does she stand apart from Mary whilst she stands at her side?
The best story, “The Long QT,” is lean, superb, and executed in a few vicious strokes. The claustrophobia jingles with silliness – a husband’s brief fantasy of infidelity has killed his wife stone dead. The doctor cannot put his finger on it: “It can be horror. Or disgust… Sometimes, he said, people die laughing.” Margaret Thatcher’s assassin, in what is basically the same story with the details reshuffled, ventures that, “All things human laugh… she’d probably laugh if she were here.” Mantel, a writer who we find at home in comedy, should remain a priority because she puts such a priority upon laughter.