The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: Stories
Henry Holt & Company, 2014
The worth of a book is in the reading, obviously, but there’s also a value to the conversation it creates. To the Lighthouse, Ulysses, On the Road—the aggregate comments they generated took on a life of its own. And a book doesn’t even have to be challenging or classic to be worth talking about; you may not have cared for The Goldfinch or Freedom, but they were good for a significant amount of small talk over their respective summers.
More than due to any one story, Hilary Mantel’s new short fiction collection The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher will probably stick in my mind because of a rollicking good discussion I had with a couple of friends about unfinished work. In particular: why looking at an artist’s sketches is so often fascinating and informative, but reading a writer’s drafts is generally… well, neither. Don’t get me wrong—I love Mantel’s writing, find it muscular and often wildly greater than the sum of its parts. There were sentences and paragraphs in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies that were written with some kind of authorial sleight-of-hand that I could never totally figure out no matter how many times I read them over; her fiction, when it’s on, is more alchemy than craft.
But The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher is not quite that. The writing is wonderful in places, but the stories have a slightly raw feel to them, and as a collection it doesn’t quite jell. Another friend said it felt like a placeholder, to give Mantel’s loving and infinitely patient fans something to read while they wait for her to finish the third book in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy. There’s an underbaked feeling to the book, and as much as I enjoyed it—and I did—I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was reading Mantel’s equivalent of a sketchbook.
Look, I love being able to see an artist’s work in its raw form. I’ve spent good money on reproductions of sketchbooks by painters and illustrators and designers I love, and once called in sick to a former job two days in a row so I could linger in front of Leonardo da Vinci’s when they came to the Met. But when it comes to writing I don’t really want to read drafts, or notes, or juvenilia. The difference being, I suppose, that writing is iterative: one version replaces the next, rather than builds on top of it, and the precision of a writer’s final choice of words is a different kind of decision from an artist’s giving primacy to one gesture over another. I could be wrong about this; the conversation isn’t over. But that’s my take on it right now.
Still, even inchoate Mantel is good stuff. The stories here are dark—sometimes overtly so, as in gothic tales like “Winter Break” or “Harley Street,”—but more often they’re quietly menacing, and these are the most successful of the collection. The opening line of “Sorry to Disturb,” about a persistent stranger-turned acquaintance whose odd sense of boundaries plays off the narrator’s chronic discomfort, sets the stage pitch-perfectly: “In those days, the doorbell didn’t ring often, and if it did I would draw back into the body of the house.”
And maybe as befits a somewhat sketchy collection, it was the phrases I loved more than the stories themselves—the way Mantel describes a neighborhood consisting of “semidetached houses of blackening pebbledash, where the dustbins had wheels but the cars were stacked on bricks”; or the smell of a bed and breakfast: “tar of ten thousand cigarettes, fat of ten thousand breakfasts, the leaking metal seep of a thousand shaving its, and the horse-chestnut whiff of nocturnal emissions.” Every landscape, every interior in this dimly lit world of Mantel’s is—if not quite threatening, then impending. Fly strips hanging in a heat wave are “a glazed yellow studded plump with prey,” and you’re almost forced to reread in alarm in case she’s actually describing something to eat.
The best stories in the collection trade on her gift for indeterminacy as well. “Comma,” which features the abovementioned flytraps, is a great, dark little tale of inner and outer defects. And “Sorry to Disturb” makes an art out of the protagonist’s and reader’s mutual discomfort. One—I’m not saying which, because the reveal is what makes it fun—will suffer from American readers’ unfamiliarity with the legend of Elizabeth Báthory, and that’s a shame. Taken together, these stories are definitely worth reading, especially if you’re a fan of Mantel’s wonderfully precise prose. But as a unit of work, the collection wants a little more polish, a bit more finish.
Still, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, even without the provocative title, generated a good conversation about books and art. Sometimes you can’t ask for more than that.