Pugilistic power in Mantel’s alternative histories
The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: Stories By Hilary Mantel 4th Estate, 256pp, $29.95 (HB) I HAD a surfeit of things to do the day Hilary Mantel’s brilliant new short stories reached me. But I tore at the envelope and sat down where the postman had passed me the parcel. Just one, I told myself. I’ll let myself read one. And I held the thing, tracing the gilt of its impossible title — The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher — cherishing anticipation.
It was a hot Brisbane afternoon, too much bite and light in the winter sun. But as soon as I stepped into the first story, Sorry to Disturb, the world’s bright warmth shrank to an indistinct unease, a shadowy menace, a thing I mistook, at first, for some sinister and dystopian future. A man knocks on a door and asks for a phone; roads disappear and maps lie. But this is not a dystopian future: it’s an expatriate past, perhaps
September 27-28, 2014 an echo or an extreme othering of Mantel’s own expatriate experiences. It propels you beyond any mundane world, and there you stay.
I have a crush on Mantel’s words; I have a crush on her Thomas Cromwell. It’s his utter reality that is seductive, his flesh, blood and sturdiness. A copy of Hans Holbein’s famous portrait of Cromwell was recently displayed at London’s National Portrait Gallery, with much made of its exact reproduction of the original’s every detail — down to the delineation of single eyelashes. It’s this level of detail Mantel’s Cromwell embodies. Ur-Cromwell; Ur-reality.
What’s wonderful about these new stories is how entirely they explore the surreality that Mantel has explored (and endured) in everything from novels (such as Beyond Black, with Alison Hart, the medium, plying her trade) to her literally haunting memoir, Giving Up the Ghost. Perhaps they are an antidote, or a counterpoint, of creepy, disjunctive and sometimes querulous things, to set against Mantel’s other current work, that steadfast delineation of a revivified 16th century.
Here are stunning alternative
histories: a mourning child’s ( The Heart Fails Without Warning), a childless woman’s ( Winter Break), the former prime minister of the collection’s title story. Here is a commuter catching a glimpse of their dead father in a parallel train: “for how many of all these surging thousands are solid,” asks the narrator in Terminus, “and how many of these assumptions are tricks of the light?”
Things get broken — glasses, lives — and the slivers of one breakage refract in the prism of another. Two lovers barrel across Europe “in an adulterous spree, accompanied by the sound of shattering glass”; a woman, on finding her husband in another’s embrace, drops the handful of glasses she’s been carrying (“it was not unknown for her to run a [dishwasher] cycle before the party was an hour old”) and drops herself down among all the dangerous shards.
Mantel’s narrators range from children and genteel ladies to grouchy writers and other imperious adults. Some are brutal; some are rude. But they burrow and lodge, unforgettable and also somehow reassessable; less angular and often more winsome on subsequent meetings. It’s a pugilistic suite, almost every one of these 10 narratives describes an arc from the first hook of beguiling opening to the literal uppercut of punchline.
Among the stories are sentences of careful intricacy that slip from mundane observation to something vast. As the narrator of Terminus puts it, scouring Waterloo for that dead parent, “I notice how easily, in most cases, committees agree the minutes, but when we are singular and living our separate lives we dispute — don’t we? — each second we believe we own.”
The furniture dances; computer disks erase themselves; doors open — just briefly — between this world and some other, with all its potentials. In fact so many slightly jarring moments and things are conjured that it seems utterly unremarkable to read a line about a “brown dinner” being kept hot and actually smell the dinner. It takes several seconds to realise the aroma of meat and gravy has not been evoked by Mantel’s words but rather by the movement of foil-covered dinners through the aeroplane where I’m finishing my reading. I wouldn’t have put it past her.