Note: Hilary Mantel was WINNER of the Man Booker Prize in 2009 for Wolf Hall, and WINNER of the Man Booker Prize in 2012 for Bring Up the Bodies. She was also WINNER of the Costa Book Award for Bring Up the Bodies in 2012.
“Even after all this time, it’s hard to grasp exactly what happened. I try to write it as it occurred, but I find myself changing the names to protect the guilty. I wonder if [that experience] left me forever off-kilter in some way, tilted from the vertical and condemned to see life skewed.”–from “Sorry to Disturb,” set in Saudi Arabia, where the author herself spent four years.
Hilary Mantel has never hesitated to say exactly what she means, and her descriptive abilities leave no room for doubt about exactly why she believes as she does. Though she is praised for her elegant turns of phrase when those are appropriate, she is equally skilled at stating, in no uncertain terms, her opinions about less elegant subjects. When Mantel’s recent short story collection, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher was first published in September, 2014, Mantel found herself on the front News page of the London Daily Mail, having done the unthinkable by imagining a story in which a man with Irish ties decides to assassinate the then-Prime Minister. Margaret Thatcher had died only a year before the story was published, and the public and many politicians were outraged by this story, with some calling for a police investigation of author Mantel while others bemoaned her “unquestionably bad taste.” Mantel held her ground, telling the Guardian in 2014 that she “feels boiling detestation” for Thatcher and considers her an “antifeminist psychological transvestite who did long-standing damage to the UK.”
In comparison to these remarks, the short story of “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher” feels almost tame, however dark or ill-advised it may have been. A woman who leads a comfortable life on the top floor of a house that has been divided into apartments opens the door to a man she thinks is the plumber sent to service the boiler. She quickly discovers that this man has a completely different mission. Through some lively dialogue in which the two speak at cross purposes, the female speaker (and the reader) learns that the man plans to assassinate Margaret Thatcher when she is released from the hospital behind this apartment, where she has just had eye surgery. As the two pass the time until the Prime Minister emerges, the speaker comments that “It’s the fake femininity I can’t stand, and the counterfeit voice….It’s the way she loves the rich… and the way she revels in her ignorance. It’s her lack of pity. Why does she need an eye operation? Is it because she can’t cry?” As the conversation continues, the would-be assassin proves to be less articulate but more single-minded than the woman. For him it’s all about Ireland, its history, and the starvation death of Bobby Sands. The conclusion, like the conclusions of most of these stories, leaves issues unresolved as the action winds down.
“The School of English,” the other long story in this book, has a totally different tone and focus. Here a young woman, Marcella, is being given a tour of an elegant house in St. John’s Wood where she may begin working. The butler, Mr. Maddox, escorting her, is hard pressed to explain the large “panic room” facility, which she is expected to clean every week, even if it is never used. The butler’s snobbishness and arrogance are contrasted with the honesty and desire to please of the potential maid, who comes from a foreign country. When asked to explain her dismissal from her previous employment, the maid’s story is almost beyond belief, illustrating the horrendous behavior of some upperclass teenagers with whom she has had to deal and the almost equally demeaning behavior of the butler to whom she is telling this brutal story. As the two continue talking, the maid emerges as the person to be most admired, and the butler, who considers himself among the elite, a small person with a small heart. Concerned with correcting her English grammar and her faulty understanding of upperclass “privilege,” the butler allows Mantel to pillory the pretensions of those who see themselves as somehow “special.”
Between these two stories, which bookend eight shorter stories, are a variety of subjects, many of them treated in a darkly humorous or satiric way. “Sorry to Disturb” takes place in Saudi Arabia in 1983, during the time when the author and her husband were also living and working there. Ijaz, a young man from Pakistan comes to the door to ask to use her phone, and she cannot rid herself of his phone calls and visits for months afterward. She has few ways to escape physically or emotionally from her apartment, laws concerning women’s behavior in Saudi Arabia being what they are, and she suffers from migraines and other illnesses. Mysterious events occur in the apartment, and she is utterly isolated from the Saudi women around her.
In yet another change of time and place and focus, “Comma” is the tale of two young girls who hide under a bush in the garden of a very elegant London home, hoping to catch a glimpse of a severely handicapped child who lives there, a child whom one of the girls describes as looking like “a comma.” The difference between the two female playmates, in terms of their educations and their parental nurturing, or lack of it, parallels the action of the story when the handicapped child is finally wheeled out into the sun. In a twist unique to this collection, the author also shows the lives of the girls twenty-five years later.
Death, marriage, infidelity, psychiatric ailments, the writing life, book clubs, and issues of adolescence, among other themes dominate these stories, but Mantel writes with a rapier in her hand, often turning a seemingly innocent scene into a scene of dark twists and sometimes ironic humor. Through her use of dialogue, Mantel conveys the inner stories of her characters as they respond with feeling to the stories within her stories. What appear to be ordinary events often prove to be extraordinary as the author’s descriptive abilities bring her realism alive and show the characters’ feelings at the same time. Even the stories which have touches of the bizarre or other-worldly are grounded so that the reader feel s/he is inhabiting the real world of the characters, no matter how strange or weird. The stories feel intimate and the reader often empathizes even when the author’s tone veers into the satiric or darkly ironic, and though the collection is uneven, it is also varied, providing something for everyone, including those who still resent Mrs. Thatcher.
Photos, in order: The author’s photo is from http://www.smh.com.au
The picture of Notting Hill, where Marcella seeks work, may be found on http://www.travelandtransitions.com/
The Saudi woman at the mall with her children may be found on http://teacupsandtyrants.com
Harley Street, famed for its physicians, is the setting for a story called “Harley Street” here. http://www.skalp.com/
Following her surgery for an eye problem, Mrs. Thatcher wore dark glasses, as in this photo. https://www.pinterest.com/
For the complete story of the controversy regarding Mantel’s story of the “Assassination of Margaret Thatcher,” here is the link to the new article: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/