The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: Stories
Published September 30, 2014
242 pages (hardcover)
I know a lot of people who hate short stories.
“Short stories take too much effort without enough payoff!” they say.
“You get invested in the characters, and then everything ends so abruptly!” they proclaim.
“They’re too short to matter!” they decry. “A short story is too brief to allow for anything deep or meaningful or significant!”
If you’re in this group of whiners, steer well clear of Hilary Mantel’s new collection, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher (unless, that is, you’re open to having your mind changed). The ten stories that make up this collection are all very short and quick (the book is just shy of 250 pages, but the font is big and the margins are huge . . . so it’s really more like 150 pages). But these very short stories are decidedly not for the lazy reader. They are brilliantly written, clever, and disturbing. Mantel loves playing with words in smart and witty ways. And her stories employ dark, twisty, and thought-provoking endings.
These are decidedly “thinky” stories and they pack a punch. Mantel uses the brevity of the stories as a device to make the reader more involved. She does not spoon-feed you information. So, if you’re looking for something easy and obvious and unambiguous, this collection is not your fare.
Also, take note: these stories are not for the faint of heart. There are grisly deaths, terminal illnesses, ghosts and vampires, and sordid affairs. There are scathing attacks on a well-known political figure (I’ll give you three guesses which one!). There is poverty, pity, confusion, and cruelty. And, at times, it’s very in your face.
Mantel is, of course, best known for being the only female author to win the Man Booker Prize twice. She won first with her book Wolf Hall (a fictional reimagining of life in England in the 1520s under the reign of Henry VII) in 2009 and then with its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, in 2012. I am ashamed to say that I haven’t read either of these books (1000+ total pages of historical fiction did not strike me as particularly appealing), despite all the amazing hype. But, after reading this collection, I am willing to give them a go. Mantel’s writing is smart, crisp, engaging, and creative. I’m a fan.
Here are synopses and individual ratings of the ten stories in the collection:
- “Sorry to Disturb” (4/5): This story, set in 1983, was originally published as a short memoir. The narrator (presumably Mantel herself) is living in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where her husband has been transferred for work. Due to legal restraints and cultural mores, she is confined by day to her shabby, roach-infested apartment. To make matters worse, she is on a heavy drug regimen for an unspecified disease, and the drugs make her a little loopy—she often worries that the furniture will move in the night and wakes to find that it has (“An armchair was leaning to the left, as if executing some tipsy dance . . .”). One day, she is surprised by a knock on the door. It is a Pakistani business man, who is lost and needs to borrow her phone. She lets him in, he makes his call, and he is off. But then, the next day, he is back—this time to thank her for her kindness. They sit and chat. Soon, he is stopping by regularly, and the narrator begins to worry about the appearance of impropriety (“No ‘mixed gatherings’ were allowed.”). What were once surprising and somewhat welcome diversions from her boring and solitary days become embarrassing (and, on his part, overtly flirtatious) nuisances. In an ironic nod toward the culture that has put her in her current position, she turns to her husband to fix the situation.
- “Comma” (3.5/5): The summer shenanigans of two girls lead them to the gardens of a splendid manor. But it is not the riches or the opulence that draws them there; it is something they have seen, wrapped in a blanket and pushed out on the back deck. It has arms . . . “But it’s not a human shape.” It can only be described as being the shape of a comma. They climb the back fence and stare, wondering what it is. And, one day, they decide to pelt it with rocks to see if it can talk. Bonus: This story ends with a fun grammar joke (yes, those do exist).
- “The Long QT” (4/5): A husband decides to make-out with the light-hearted Lorraine (“It’s so sad to be called after a quiche”) at a party at his house, knowing full well that his wife could walk in at any moment. This story is a very quick eight pages, but the ending is GREAT.
- “Winter Break” (3/5): A couple goes on vacation. During their airport transfer to the hotel, the taxi hits something. The driver puts it out of its misery (by bashing in its head) and dumps it in the trunk. This story relies on confusion and is intended to shock . . . but it’s actually quite predictable.
- “Harley Street” (3.5/5): This tongue-in-cheek story is about a vapid, busy-body receptionist in a doctor’s office who thinks she knows everything . . . but doesn’t realize that she’s working alongside vampires, despite the obvious clues (like Mrs. Bathurst, a nurse: “a woman of uncertain age, sallow, black hair graying, scooped back into wings and pinned with Kirby grips. She wore a dark cape—which she carried well, because of her height. She’s worn it all summer though: in August, people stare.”).
- “Offenses against the Person” (3/5): A seventeen-year-old girl goes to work at her dad’s law office and realizes very quickly that he’s having an affair with his secretary.
- “How Shall I Know You?” (4.5/5): This is my favorite story in the collection. It starts out a little slow and depressing and seems to go on somewhat rambling tangents . . . but it all comes together beautifully in the end. A past-her-prime author travels around to talk about her books to book clubs. At a scuzzy hotel for one of these talks, she meets a jaundiced, sickly, child-like woman. The woman feels a kinship toward her, but the author returns her affection with pity. This story takes a surprising and poignant turn at the end, and I loved it!
- “The Heart Fails without Warning” (4/5): This super-sad story is about the family dynamics surrounding an eleven-year-old girl and her teenager sister who suffers from severe and fatal anorexia. The imagery and symbolism employed here are perhaps the strongest in the collection, and the story’s final image is gut-wrenching.
- “Terminus” (2/5): A ghost story! A commuter sees his/her dead father on a passing train and tries to find him in Waterloo Station. This was my least favorite story and doesn’t really add much to the collection. This is the kind of sub-par short story people read when they make the generalized assessment that short stories aren’t deep or interesting.
- “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: August 6, 1983” (4/5): The titular story raised quite a stink in Britain, especially after the BBC decided to serialize it for its program Book at Bedtime. It imagines an alternate ending to the life (or, more accurately, death) of the former Prime Minister. An IRA assassin pretends to be a plumber and tricks a woman into letting him into her apartment (as an aside, this is an interesting and clever bookend to the first story in the collection, which also involves a stranger coming into the narrator’s apartment). Her apartment has an excellent view of the back entrance of the hospital where Thatcher has just had eye surgery and is scheduled to leave momentarily (this timeline is factually accurate). The woman is not Margaret Thatcher’s biggest fan and when she realizes that the man is not in her apartment to fix her pipes (as he starts to assemble his “widowmaker”), she reacts surprisingly calmly (aggressive Stockholm Syndrome, perhaps?). She quickly develops a rapport with him, sharing her negative opinions of Thatcher, watching as he sets up his sight line, and even suggesting ways he might escape after the fact. This is one of the best stories in the collection and was published in full in the New York Times Sunday Book Review (you can read it here).
The well-deserved hype:
- An Amazon Best Book of the Month for October 2014 (and Top 100 Best Books of the Year)
- Los Angeles Times Best Short Stories of 2014
- One of New York Times Book Review’s 100 Notable Books of 2014
- One of Washington Post’s Top 50 Fiction Books for 2014
- Named to The Guardian’s list of Best Fiction of 2014
Who should read it: Leigh (i.e., fans of clever, unique, and not entirely straightforward short stories).
One final note: I decided to read this book after reading FictionFan’s excellent review of it. Thanks for the great review!
Want to read along with me? A review of this book is coming soon:
- We Are Called to Rise by Laura McBride (the #1 Indie Next List pick for June 2014)