Hilary Mantel continues to expand her readership as more people latch onto her brilliant Thomas Cromwell trilogy. This piece of historical fiction is the first taste of her work for a lot of us, and the final installment has yet to land (not to mention a TV adaptation that British viewers are enjoying as we speak, but which awaits stateside release). In the interim, a separate publisher has provided the ten short stories that make up The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher.
The opening shot, “Sorry to Disturb,” is a confusing gauge of what is to come. It paints a modern culture clash, with vague hints of a male threat against the female protagonist, and then fizzles with not much of an ending. Bad men, and infidelity specifically, are a regular occurrence in this collection. In “The Long QT” a wife comes upon her straying husband at a party they host, and “Offenses Against the Person” is a more complex story in which the mistress of the narrator’s father is known and named.
A better display of Mantel’s writing is her strange take on girlhood. In “Comma” two girls are voyeuristically enthralled with someone with unstated deformity or disability. An eating disorder haunts the sister of the callous teen protagonist in “The Heart Fails Without Warning.” One memorable story is “How Shall I Know You?” which is unique in its unease. It tells of a weary writer visiting a dilapidated motel on a shoestring book tour, and her interactions with a mysterious (and once again, somewhat deformed) young girl who works there.
Mantel slips a bit when she tries to add a punchline or ah-ha moment to her endings. This happens in a consecutive trio starting with “The Long QT,” then “Winter Break,” in which a couple argues over the idea of children until their topic of conversation is made gruesomely manifest, followed by “Harley Street.” This last is rich in detail, chronicling a group of women who work in a shabby hospital in an unspecified year. But by the end we are to presumably suspect vampirism of a sort, and the whole thing feels more like a clever exercise.
Yet this all makes a bit more sense when you see that “Harley Street” was originally published way back in 1993, with most of the other stories having origins in the first decade of the 2000s. The whole book is a reason to publish the title story, which sits in the final slot. This is a strong piece, evoking an exciting day in a humble London neighborhood in 1983, when Mrs. Thatcher makes a stop. Here is Mantel in her element, vividly constructing a situation that feels immediate because of its particular place and mood, toying with established history. The assassin and his unwitting accomplice set up shop next to a window with a perfect sightline, awaiting the final minute. The story is more about these two than the bullet’s intended target.
“I should like to be rich in anecdote. Fertile to invent.” Mantel writes this in the short and poetic “Terminus,” the penultimate story in her collection (and one that city commuters would appreciate). She no doubt has these qualities herself, though this collection as a whole fails to show off her strongest side. “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher” as a story is worth the while, something that would work well as a $1.99 Kindle Single. In its best moments it reminds the reader of the author’s intricate handling of significant events, and leaves us eager to return to her visions of an older England. The short story snacks hold us over for a minute, but the meal is in Mantel’s novels.