Darkly humorous vision: Hilary Mantel’s “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher”

The conceit of this book’s title story has prompted calls for Mantel’s head – but how well would Wolf Hall have gone down at the court of Henry VIII?

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The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher
Hilary Mantel
Fourth Estate, 256pp, £14.99

It begins and ends with an open door. In the first story of Hilary Mantel’s blistering new collection, the narrator allows Ijaz, a salesman, into her apartment to use her phone. It is June 1983 and she is living in Jeddah with her husband, who works as a geologist. She is confined within the prison walls of her home, for this is Saudi Arabia; she is hoping her book might be published. (Readers who know something of Mantel’s life might see parallels with the author’s. Indeed, “Sorry to Disturb” was first published in the London Review of Books – under the title “Someone to Disturb” – as “a memoir”. Here those words have been excised.)

Ijaz makes his phone call but he returns and returns again. The narrator is drawn unwillingly into his life. He adds to a sense of oppression and menace present in all of these stories. Those who leave Jeddah are “escapees”, cockroaches scuttle in the shower, wardrobes disassemble themselves overnight and the narrator notes in her diary: “Execution dream again.”

And so, at the end of this collection – but just two months later, for the date is 6 August 1983 – another narrator lets another stranger over her threshold. She thinks he has come to fix her boiler; instead, he has come with a gun to assassinate the prime minister as she leaves a hospital in Windsor after an eye operation. As in “Sorry to Disturb”, reality and fiction blur. The website of the Margaret Thatcher Foundation will inform you that “MT left Windsor for Chequers at 1045” after being discharged from the Princess Christian’s Hospital. Mantel’s story – chatty, convincing, all the more sinister for that – reminds us simply, “History could always have been otherwise.”

The assassin’s rifle is called “the widow­maker”. Mantel always has her eye to its sight. Her elevation, in recent years, to the status of national treasure has obscured the dark, mordant humour of her vision. The conceit of this book’s title story has prompted calls for her head – Tim Bell, Thatcher’s former PR man, barked, “Surely the police should investigate” – which might cause some readers to smile, wondering how Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies would have gone down at the court of Henry VIII.

The ten stories that make up this collection have as their common thread the ability to measure the distance – it’s very small indeed – between our supposedly civilised daily behaviour and the darkest recesses of the human soul. In Mantel’s worlds, desire, or its opposite, is made manifest in the poltergeist movement of furniture, or, as in “Terminus”, a father’s ghost glimpsed on a train bound for Waterloo. That story, the shortest in the book, asks baldly how we can tell the living from the dead. You will never see rush hour in the same way again: “For how many of those surging thousands are solid, and how many of these assumptions are tricks of the light? How many, I ask you, are connected at all points, how many are utterly and convincingly in the state they purport to be: which is, alive?”

Sometimes her writing has this incantatory hauteur. It is blended with piercingly accurate descriptions (“the horse-chestnut whiff of nocturnal emissions”) and zinging juxtapositions (in the final story, the narrator wonders whether the gunman’s pockets are crammed with “assassin’s requisites”).

Collections of stories don’t always succeed as unified works. One of the pleasures of this book is its sense of wholeness, achieved even though all except the title story have been published before, one (“Harley Street”) as long ago as 1993. Like her novel Beyond Black, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher has an acid grip. The spirits that informed her haunting memoir, Giving Up the Ghost, have their echo here, too. Mantel has the ability to make the reader complicit with the narrator’s voice, whispering in her ear. This is especially disturbing in “Winter Break” – its ending made this particular reader jump out of her skin.

The most ordinary things take a strange turn: hanging fly strips are “a glazed yellow studded plump with prey”; a bed of geraniums is “so scarlet – as if the earth had bled through the pavements”. The dark humour of “How Shall I Know You?” takes the itinerant life of a moderately successful writer and makes it both funny (“. . . for sure A S Byatt would have managed it better”) and weirdly, indefinably creepy.

Mantel’s narrators are not comfortable companions: so much the better. They made me recall the time when a journalist got herself into hot water with Claire Messud. They were discussing Messud’s novel The Woman Upstairs and its character Nora Eldridge. Remarking that Nora’s outlook was “unbearably grim”, the journalist asked: “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you?” Messud’s reply was bracingly blunt. “For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp?”

The correct question to ask about fiction, Messud said, was not whether its characters were “likeable” but whether they were “alive”. Mantel’s characters are certainly that, even if they are haunted, like the reader, by the bleak and bitter spirits that live at the edge of our sight.

Erica Wagner is New Statesman contributing writer. A former literary editor of the Times, she has twice judged the Man Booker Prize. Her most recent book is Chief Engineer: The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge.

This article appears in the 30 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, ISIS vs The World

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