Photograph by Ray Tang
The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher review – Hilary Mantel's new collection
The phenomenal narrative engine of the Cromwell novels only fires in fits and starts in this flawed but absorbing selection
Wednesday 24 September 2014 12.00 BST
Short stories have a way of turning innocent readers into exacting aestheticians. Their brevity invites us to engage with them as formal structures in a way that novels generally don't. We judge them as artefacts even as we consume them as narrative, and consciously or not, we demand all kinds of contradictory things from them. We want them to feel inventive but uncontrived, lifelike but extraordinary, surprising but inevitable, illuminating but mysterious, resolved but open-ended. It's a tall order, as anyone who has tried to write one will know.
Hilary Mantel's collection opens and closes with stories of male intruders, the first of which, "Sorry to Disturb", beautifully fulfils all of the above criteria. Set in Saudi Arabia during the 80s, it charts a series of increasingly unwelcome visits by a Pakistani businessman to the married narrator's flat in Jeddah after she lets him in one day to use her phone.
As Ijaz, the businessman, progresses from grateful stranger to possessive suitor, and the narrator finds herself trapped between his overbearing attentions and her own wish not to give offence, the story becomes a comedy of cross-cultural sexual politics that manages to be moving and disturbing as well as very funny. Its tension brings the stultifying place and period vibrantly to life, with its trapped women suffocating behind closed doors and the dusty orange glare beyond, "perpetual, like the lighting of a bad sci-fi film". And its climax – a momentary metamorphosis of liberated westerner into Saudi-style wife – is as startling but satisfying as you could hope. "Even after all this time it's hard to grasp exactly what happened," the narrator tells us in hindsight. And that too is a part of her story's power: the sense that, for all her vivid analyses and articulations of her own behaviour, she remains a little baffling even to herself.
The story, which is easily the best in the book and certainly the only one running on the same phenomenal narrative engines as the Thomas Cromwell books, was originally published as memoir (in the London Review of Books). It works well as fiction, but it may be that its strength owes something to its basis in reality.
At any rate its counterpart, at the other end of the book, is based (by Mantel's own account) in something more like wishful thinking. This time the intruder is an IRA assassin whom the narrator has mistaken for a plumber, and who wants to use the window of her flat to take a shot at Margaret Thatcher (this is also set in the 80s).
Like everything else in the book, "The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher – August 6th 1983" has an engaging sprightliness, and the situation it contrives – of a captive woman who shares her captor's loathing for the Iron Lady, almost to the point of being willing to trade places with him ("You go and make the tea and I'll sit here and mind the gun") – is full of comic as well as serious possibilities. The problem is that so much of the story's energy goes into the elaborate mechanics and metaphysics of its counterfactual plot that the actual animus against Thatcher, when it comes out, seems rote and under-imagined. The woman gives a speech about "the way [Thatcher] loves the rich, the way she worships them … her philistinism, her ignorance … her lack of pity". The man comes back at her with: "It's about Ireland. Only Ireland … those boys on hunger strike …" Nothing to object to, but it amounts to little more than cheerleading (or jeerleading), which is disappointing, to say the least, after the richly layered political theatre of the Tudor novels.
Generally, these stories succeed best where they are furthest away from the machinery of their plots and devices. Mantel has a great eye for the dross and dreck of urban and suburban life – the "crapola", as Philip Roth calls it – and it's a joy to follow her around as she observes it. "Comma" has lovely evocations of semi-rural English summers where "You didn't need food; you got an iced lolly from the shop: the freezer's motor whined." "How Shall I Know You" rolls along wonderfully for a good 20 pages in which its writer/narrator does little more than itemise the elements of an exceptionally dismal literary event outside London. There's the depressing journey, down an arterial road "lined by sick saplings" to a place where "there were no real shops, just the steel-shuttered windows of small businesses". There's the B&B from hell, with its "tar of ten thousand cigarettes, fat of ten thousand breakfasts, the leaking metal seep of a thousand shaving cuts …", and the bed itself with its "turd-coloured candlewick cover". There's the host's miserly hospitality: "I expect you have eaten …" And there's the narrator's own ill-health, adding an extra sheen of ghastliness to everything she beholds.
With the introduction of a disabled girl, "diminutive and crooked", working at the B&B, the story begins to show signs of more complicated authorial intent. There are suggestions of a subliminal affinity between the narrator and the girl, and eventually Mantel forces an unlikely series of events that make this resonance between them cumbersomely explicit. It diminishes the impact of an otherwise powerful piece.
Several of the stories move towards this convergence of apparent opposites, often with a disfigurement of one kind or another forming one of the poles. "Comma" has a baby whose indeterminate features migrate, over time, into those of the narrator's underprivileged childhood playmate. "Winter Break" implicates a childless couple, on holiday in Greece, in the death of a child, using the double meaning of kid (goat, child) as its gruesome narrative pivot. "The Heart Fails Without Warning" builds its final image, of a spectral girl holding a ghostly white dog, out of an anorexic teenager growing doglike hair on her face, and her father's interest in porn featuring naked girls on dog leads. These kinds of resonances and reciprocities can allow a story to jump between elements without the need for novelistic bridge passages. Flannery O'Connor used them to brilliant effect, but in her case they were structural, whereas here they seem more superimposed; a way of seeming to bring everything together at the end, when the linkage is in fact often rather tenuous.
With two Man Bookers behind her, Mantel should perhaps be exempt from the usual ordeal by review. A bare summary is probably all her readers need at this point, in which case here goes: 10 stories; some of them slight and occasionally dated (there's a lesbian-themed satire on Harley Street that seems to come from a very distant era); four or five flawed successes and interesting failures; one knockout.
• James Lasdun's Give Me Everything You Have is published by Vintage.