Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel

If the author’s name is familiar then that’s because she’s a two time Man Booker prize winner.  Her first was for the 2009 novel Wolf Hall, a fictional account of Thomas Cromwell's rise to power in the court of Henry VIII.  Her second Booker came in 2012 novel Bring Up the Bodies, the second installment of the Thomas Cromwell trilogy.   Mantel’s the first woman to receive the award twice.  The third installment to her Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, is set to be published in 2015. 

This collection of short stories is not, however, historic in the usual sense.  It does, at times meddle with recent historical characters but in different ways to her swash buckling and mind behind the title story was originally commissioned a couple of years ago by the Telegraph.  The topic was, obviously, polarizing.  Anyone growing up or around in the 80’s remember, in vivid 80’s yellowed colour the TV footage of miner’s strikes, hunger strikes and factory closures, the handbag and the venomous serpent teeth and the patronizing accent.  She was the most hated woman in England.  She event inspired an entire music/cultural movement: Punk.  If it were me, well!  And that’s the story.  This collection begins with the intrusion of a male – in Sorry to Disturb – when a business man in a claustrophobic Middle Eastern country bursts into the apartment of an Ex Pat Brit.  That time a ‘friendship’ develops.  The final story is another interruption, when an assassin fakes his way into a woman’s flat pretending to be a plumber.  A strange Stockholm syndrome relationship develops over cups of tea and sympathy for the cause.  The IRA shooter is only interested in his quarry.  But then so is the flat owner.  She’s not really a victim and she’s not really aiding or abetting either.  So what is she?  I love this simple dilemma.  It just seems to arrive, announced wanting attention, uncontrived.  And sometimes leaves, unresolved.  Like life.

Not all of these are like this.  Comma, for example is a fleeting is about childhood cruelty metamorphosing into the narrator’s own child.  “Harley Street” has slight lesbian overtones in a professional setting.  Winter Break is like the Madeline McCann case in reverse, implicating a childless couple in the murder of a child in the picturesque Greek Islands.  Then there’s the most disturbing.  The Heart Fails Without Warning constructs a final scenario of a spectral girl holding a ghostly white dog, out of an anorexic teenager growing doglike hair on her face.  This is juxtaposed against her father's interest in porn featuring naked girls on dog leads. It’s all perplexing.  Mantel likes to twist our perceptions and play with our expectations, tease our assumptions and throw them back in our faces.  From Saudi to Greece she travels on paper to play out her scenarios.  None of these are big enough to build a real novel around, too fragmented but perfect for short, punchy vignettes. 

This is not the placeholder until Mantel gets her latest installment finished next year – or whenever.  Some of these have been lurking around since 2009, published and unpublished.  But short stories are like itches that need to be scratched.  They are small distractions, that when effectively administered to are most satisfactorily dealt to.  That said, this collection is a near on perfect scratching session.  Irritations aside, it’s a fine collection – short and perfect for train journeys, lunch breaks or those moments you try to snatch to relieve those intellectual irritations.  But look out for installment #3 of the bigger novel if you need longer appeasements.                  

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