It is easy to invite charges of hyperbole when praising Hilary Mantel. Since the publication of Wolf Hall in 2009 (and its 2012 sequel, Bring Up the Bodies), she has cemented her reputation as one of the most accomplished writers at work today.
By reinventing the historical novel as something dynamic and complex instead of starchy or twee, she has reaffirmed our belief in it. Those two hefty, multi-garlanded Thomas Cromwell novels stand like towering monoliths on the contemporary literary landscape, twin testaments to the power of the creative mind. It’s no wonder readers are hungry for the third and final part in her trilogy.
Unfortunately The Mirror and the Light isn't due until next year. To tide readers over, Mantel has delivered The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher [US publisher; Amazon.co.uk], a book of 10 short stories. As all of them bar one have been in print before, we could argue that the collection comes more at her publisher's behest – a cash-cow milking ploy on their part rather than a genuine artistic project on hers.
However, to be fair, the nine older stories are previously uncollected, having appeared over recent years in the likes of The Guardian and the London Review of Books. Most are disquieting, incisive and thought-provoking. One or two are flecked with moments of rare brilliance.
Mantel's finer stories are those that involve a female first-person narrator looking back on the past. In Comma, a woman reminisces about being a young girl of 8 during a hot English summer when, against her prim parents' wishes, she played with a grubby girl from a poor family.
Offences Against the Person features another woman remembering her father's affair with his secretary in the early 70s. And How Shall I Know You?, set "at the fag-end of the nineties", sees a biographer dredging up a grimly-comic recollection of a disastrous trip she made to give a talk to a literary society.
Two stories, The Long QT and Winter Break, start out as light sketches but soon transform themselves into tales of the unexpected with shock endings. In contrast, Terminus has a shock opener: "On January 9th, shortly after eleven on a dark sleety morning, I saw my dead father on a train pulling out of Clapham Junction, bound for Waterloo." Death plays its part here and elsewhere. The deeply affecting The Heart Fails Without Warning unfolds over months and counts down the final struggles of a girl with an eating disorder.
And then there is the title story, its title smacking of sensationalism but nonetheless piquing our curiosity. Currently creating something of a to-do within the British press, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher is a fictionalised account of the Iron Lady's murder in 1983 by an Irish paramilitary sniper. Mantel's humour is pitch-black, her scenario carefully calibrated farce. The narrator serves the marksman tea while he waits for his target to emerge from an eye hospital. "Why does she need an eye operation?" the unsympathetic narrator muses. "Is it because she can't cry?"
This last story, both controversial and brand new, is presumably intended as the book's selling point. However, it is not its high point. Instead Mantel opens with her best, the magnificent Sorry to Disturb. Originally subtitled "A Memoir", the story, like Mantel's third novel Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, draws on the author's years of dislocation while in Jeddah in the 80s.
The unnamed narrator spends her days imprisoned in her claustrophobic apartment, oppressed by “coffin-lid doors, the heavy wilful furniture”. Mantel introduces a Pakistani gentleman caller whose visits are “ripe for misunderstanding”, but the story’s main power originates from the narrator’s culture shock which proves initially to be diverting but later debilitating.
Male neighbours blank her, “according me invisibility, as a mark of respect to another man’s wife”. Female neighbours flit across landings from one house to another in full veil and abaya. She comes to learn that education for women is regarded as a luxury, “an ornament, a way for a husband to boast of his broad-mindedness”, that eating out is “more a gesture than a pleasure” and that many Saudis are baffled by the concept of poverty. Finally, she becomes an “escapee”, having served her time, but wonders if Jeddah has left her “forever off-kilter in some way, tilted from the vertical and condemned to see life skewed”.
Only one story, Harley Street, fails to ignite, impeded as it is by a double blunder of lacklustre plot and even feebler wit (a dentist called Snapper, a doctor called Shinbone and a gynaecologist called Mr Smear). Otherwise Mantel's collection sparkles, providing consistently wry commentary on the many foibles of human experience.
Malcolm Forbes is a regular contributor to The Review.