Of her many accolades, Hilary Mantel can perhaps be most proud of arousing the Daily Mail’s ire. She did so by doing what novelists are supposed to – spotting that which is too directly in front of everyone’s noses for anyone else to notice. To her we owe thanks for observing that Thatcher was a ‘psychological transvestite’ and for noting that the media sees Kate Middleton as a doll on which to hang clothes. Her talent for capturing an attitude in one wry, glancing phrase is abundantly displayed in her latest collection of stories – The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher – as is her deeply felt ‘Maggiephobia’.
The first story, ‘Sorry to Disturb’, easily eclipses the rest. This autobiographical piece recalls the years she spent in Jeddah, Saudia Arabia, where a Pakistani businessman’s knock at her door resulting in a comedy of crossed cultures and crossed wires. Yet the overall impression is not comic, because it is as much a sketch as a story of a woman, both claustrophobic and agoraphobic, trapped far from home in a cockroach-patrolled flat, and unwilling to venture into the unfriendly city.
Unfortunately, not all the stories are so good. ‘Winter Break’ follows a couple’s taxi journey, where the driver hits some creature then finishes it off with a rock, and dumps its corpse in the boot. The classic structure of the short story is identifiable: the ambiguity, about whether the ‘kid’ the car hit was of the four-legged, grass-chewing sort, finds its inevitable resolution in the final sentence. The trouble is, no author in their right mind would finish a story by saying, “Oh, it was just a goat,” so we already realise the car actually hit a human child long before Mantel confirms it.
Like ‘Winter Break’, ‘The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher’ describes a bourgeois life interrupted – by the Prime Minister’s eye operation at the hospital near the narrator’s house, then by a call from an IR A assassin requiring a vantage point. The cliché-heavy dialogue which these two very different anti-Thatcherites exchange dissipates the early promise of the story. This makes it the crassest of what is generally a subtle and highly readable collection.