Right on target
Mantel’s collection greater than the sum of its parts
HILARY Mantel’s deft storytelling in The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher will come as no surprise to her fans. Her two most recent books, Wolf Hall and its sequel Bring up the Bodies, both won the Man Booker prize. While her many faithful readers wait impatiently for the third book in the Thomas Cromwell trilogy, Mantel has generously compiled a collection of short stories to tide us over. Nine of the 10 stories in this collection were previously published in periodicals and anthologies, with only The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher as a newly published piece. While each story stands sturdily on its own, as a collection they build upon each other, creating a thing greater than the sum of its parts. The stories begin quite internal and contained. Sorry to Disturb, the first story in the collection, describes the constrained and claustrophobic life of a woman writer living in Saudi Arabia. Her only company is the other women living in her apartment block, her nondescript husband, and a strange man who keeps dropping by for awkward visits over tea. That is followed up by a story of two young lower-class girls, Kitty and Mary, who become inseparable for one hot dreary summer. They spy on a house where rich people live, hoping to catch a glimpse of the terrifying creature that Mary insists dwells within. Mary, the older of the two girls, describes the creature as not having a human shape, but rather the shape of a comma. Every day the girls sit in the bushes, pausing, suspended, waiting to see the comma. The Long QT explores the moment of a man giving himself permission to indulge in an extramarital affair. Mantel outlines, in exquisite detail, the cascading thoughts, equivocations and justifications that tear through a man’s mind the moment he first kisses a woman who is not his wife. The entire story explores less than a minute in real time: the flirt, the kiss, the decision, the discovery and the devastating conclusion. The richly tactile quality of Mantel’s prose shows us a powerful writer at the top of her game. The Heart Fails Without Warning is crushingly beautiful. Eleven-year-old Lola watches as her sister Morna starves herself into pure ethereal light. Their frantic parents threaten, cajole, plead with her to eat, but Morna is unmoved. While Lola is trapped in the midst of the three strong-willed people vying for control, Morna just floats above the pull of appetite, and has nothing but disdain for the desires of others. The otherworldly nature of Morna’s obsession with lightness leads us into the final two stories in the collection, both of which live outside our daily world. In Terminus, a woman inadvertently catches a glimpse of her dead father riding on a train, which is sitting on a track parallel to her own train. When the two trains pull into the station she searches desperately for the ghost of her father. As she scans commuters — all moving as one through the station — she begins to wonder how many are in fact flesh and blood humans and how many are ghosts. She loses the ability to discern between the physical and ethereal. Finally, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher fully lives in the space between true and untrue, real and imagined. It is at once a clever and fascinating study of the relationship between an assassin and his hostage, and a brilliant exploration of the hinge between possibility and reality. Mantel’s writing crackles on the page. Her ability to create detailed worlds, her willingness to sound the depths of the human condition, and her attraction to the scandalous make this collection of short stories a potent adventure. Debbie Patterson is a Winnipeg playwright,
director and performer.
Hilary Mantel’s attention to detail and attraction to the scandalous make her collection a potent one.
The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher and