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The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: Stories


The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: Stories

When you think of Hilary Mantel, you probably think of her as one of our finest writers of historical fiction. Her last two novels, WOLF HALL and BRING UP THE BODIES, chronicle the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell. (The third book of the series comes out next year.) An earlier work, A PLACE OF GREATER SAFETY, takes place during the Reign of Terror. And she has been celebrated for these works: She is one of only three authors to win the Man Booker Prize twice, the others being Peter Carey and J.M. Coetzee.

It’s unlikely, however, that you equate Mantel with genre fiction. You’d be surprised, then, upon reading THE ASSASSINATION OF MARGARET THATCHER, her first work of short fiction since 2003’s LEARNING TO TALK, to discover a ghost story and a tale about vampires. Another surprise, at least to me, is the timidity and innocence of some of the female protagonists. One suspects that Mantel’s goal was to have fun with genre conventions and shock readers accustomed to the style of her more muscular novels.

And what could be more shocking than the imagined assassination of the most polarizing British prime minister of the last half-century? Given the dancing-on-the-grave reactions to her death last year, Margaret Thatcher still provokes strong feelings. It’s no surprise that the title story, first printed in the Guardian and the New York Times, has garnered so much attention.

"[The title story] is the most accomplished and fully realized story in the book. There are many wonderful touches... Nothing happens the way you would expect it to. It’s a powerful, provocative work."

The action is set in 1983. Mantel describes beautifully the female narrator’s quiet neighborhood: she writes, for example, of homes that have warm scoops of terra-cotta tiling. Journalists and photographers wait for Thatcher to leave a private hospital after minor eye surgery. The narrator, meanwhile, waits for a Mr. Duggan to come fix her boiler. When the doorbell rings, a man she doesn’t recognize appears at her door. She assumes he is one of Duggan’s men and lets him in.

The man carries a large, heavy bag. She becomes suspicious and asks if he is a photographer. He doesn’t answer right away, but she later assumes the bag contains photography equipment, especially after the man tells her that the vantage from her third-floor flat will allow him to get a good shot.

The visitor is instead a member of the Irish Republican Army. When the woman realizes this, she and the intruder engage in a spirited discussion of Thatcher and everything they hate about her, from her accessories and hair to her stance on Ireland. This is the most accomplished and fully realized story in the book. There are many wonderful touches, such as the moment when the woman sees that the assassin’s hands are slippery with sweat, and she brings him a towel. Nothing happens the way you would expect it to. It’s a powerful, provocative work.

Only one other story is as good. “Sorry to Disturb” is about a woman living in Saudi Arabia in the 1960s with her geologist husband. She is lonely, frequently ill, and takes medicine that the Muslim women and company wives who share her apartment building believe to be fertility drugs. Her boredom is alleviated when a stranger named Muhammad Ijaz, a Pakistani man in the import-export business, asks to use her phone. The story is distinguished not only by the odd relationship the two develop but also by Mantel’s vivid details, such as that malls either strand or entrap visitors who are still shopping when evening prayers begin.

The other stories are sketchy rather than fleshed out. “Comma” is a creepy tale of an eight-year-old girl, her 10-year-old friend, and their fascination with the not-quite-human creature they often see outside the home of a wealthy family. “Winter Break” is the grisly story of a childless couple and the disturbing object their driver finds under the front wheels of their taxi. In “Harley Street,” a greeter at a clinic run by vampires tries to befriend a new employee who wears capes everywhere and swoons at the first sight of blood on a patient’s arm. The narrator of “Offenses Against the Person” works for her father, a senior partner at a law firm, and witnesses the repercussions of his affair with a former employee.

These lightweight stories, despite gorgeous turns of phrase, lack the emotional heft of the other two. The characters and situations aren’t as nuanced or compelling as those in the better stories, or in Mantel’s novels. Perhaps next year’s Cromwell book will be a return to form.

Reviewed by Michael Magras on October 2, 2014

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: Stories
by Hilary Mantel

  • Publication Date: September 1, 2015
  • Genres: Fiction, Short Stories
  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Picador
  • ISBN-10: 125007472X
  • ISBN-13: 9781250074720