Pugilis­tic power in Man­tel’s al­ter­na­tive his­to­ries

The Weekend Australian - Review - - BOOKS - Ash­ley Hay

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.