Hilary Mantel, whose brilliant, engrossing historical novels, "Wolf Hall" and "Bring Up the Bodies," achieved the surprising feat of humanizing the sinister Thomas Cromwell, provokes such addictive interest that audiences evidently could not bear the wait for the third volume in the series, "The Mirror and the Light." A new collection of her short fiction,The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, has emerged to give readers a quick Mantel fix. The deliberately provocative title story – the only previously unpublished chapter – appeared last month in both the Guardian and the New York Times Book Review, heightening the head rush.
Her new collection begins and ends with a story (eight chapters divide them) in which a woman opens the door of her apartment to an unknown man in the summer of 1983. The action of each tale in this coincidental duo takes place on a different continent and involves wholly unrelated characters and plots; yet each projects a similar, hallucinatory reality, whose mingled sharpness and blur are relayed with disconcerting exactness by its narrator. In the first story, “Sorry to Disturb,” set in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, the stranger at the bell is a rumpled Pakistani businessman who has got lost in the maze of Jeddah’s streets and seeks directions. A wary British housewife lets him in. In its opposite number, set in Windsor, England, the man at the door is an IRA assassin. He has learned that the British prime minister is in Windsor for an eye operation and will soon stand directly in sight of the bedroom window of the home he has invaded, giving him the chance to accomplish his mission: the assassination of Margaret Thatcher. The gunman has done his homework. He knows that the woman who has let him in loathes Thatcher (as does Mantel) and likely will not impede his plan – not that she could stop him, once he assembles his sniper rifle. “You can be a help if you want, and if you don’t want, we can do accordingly,” he tells her. But she does want, even if she insincerely tells him she doesn’t believe “violence solves anything.” She brews him a pot of tea and waits, complicit.
Behind the two doors of these stories – and the many doors of the others that come between them – stand obscure but distinct individuals. Even if they are not Cromwells, Mantel invests them with motive and personality, rooting them in place with the scents and sights of their daily activities, and with habits and pettinesses that make them feel knowable and real. The woman in Jeddah (where Mantel lived with her husband before she began publishing novels) hates living in Saudi Arabia, where the air in her apartment is “heavy with insecticide; sometimes I sprayed it as I walked, and it fell about me like bright mists, veils.” The woman in Windsor (where Mantel lived in 1983) resents but enjoys her quaint bourgeois town, where in the spring, “cherry trees toss extravagant flounces of blossom” until the wind “strips the petals, they flurry in pink drifts and carpet the pavements, as if giants have held a wedding in the street.”
“Other lives” lurk behind any door, Mantel writes. “Different histories lie close; they are curled like winter animals, breathing shallow, pulse undetected.” Anyone’s life, she suggests, could resemble anyone else’s; or not: “History could always have been otherwise.” Her stories in this book, as in the Tudor novels, sport with the infinite possibilities of otherwise.
A characteristic darkness tinges the mood of each tale, and while Mantel may extol actual nature – cherry blossoms and the occasional butterfly – she has no interest in prettifying human nature or outcomes. Several of the stories revolve around children and family ties. In “Comma,” two little girls, middle-class Kitty and lower-class Mary, spy on a rich family’s deformed baby. Kitty’s status-conscious aunt despises Mary and forbids Kitty to associate with her, but Kitty cannot resist Mary’s ragged, sniggering charisma. To pacify her aunt, Kitty denies the friendship, lying: “Mary’s got fly-strike” or “She’s got maggots.” The invented afflictions make the aunt scream with cruel laughter. In “The Long QT,” a slim fable of marital vengeance, a man accidentally frees himself of his neat-freak wife; while in “Winter Break,” an intentionally childless couple, on holiday in Greece, receive a jolt that strips their pedophobia of its feigned high-mindedness. And “The Heart Fails Without Warning,” a haunting story about an anorexic girl and her callous little sister, Lola, starkly avoids sentimentality. “If I die, I want a woodland burial. You can plant a tree and when it grows you can visit it,” says the older sister. “Yeah. Right. I’ll bring my dog,” says Lola.
Three other stories turn the same focused detachment on the professional sphere. In “Harley Street,” a forbidding, self-satisfied receptionist in a medical practice shows an almost sociopathic obtuseness in her inability to perceive the lesbian bond between her co-workers; in “Offenses Against the Person,” an undutiful daughter recalls the year in her youth when she worked in her father’s legal office and dispassionately observed his disastrous affair with a secretary. The longest of these, the wry episode, “How Shall I Know You?” features a jaded author, bedeviled by migraine, who has accepted a small-town speaking engagement. Entering a grim hotel, following a “diminutive and crooked” young employee with a face of “feral sweetness” up the “scarlet stinking stairs,” she thinks, “What would Anita Brookner do?” Eventually, pitying the girl, she gives her money; but later the author feels the pinch of condescension when she realizes that others pity her. The penultimate story, “Terminus,” contains a ghostly sighting of the narrator’s unfond father – long since dead – prompting her to reflect that “people are divided by all sorts of things,” and “frankly, death is the least of them.”
For Mantel, frankly, death often acts as an organizing force; what history, what historical fiction could exist without the deaths of the powerful? It is certainly death that unites the characters of the standout title story in this collection: the premeditated, retributive execution of Britain’s Iron Lady. Novelists often deny the real-life models for their characters, but Mantel has freely discussed the rancor she felt for Thatcher. She told an interviewer last month that the view she gives her IRA sniper was the very view she had in her Windsor apartment on August 6, 1983, the day Thatcher emerged from eye surgery. “I was exactly where the narrator of my story is standing,” she said, watching the prime minister “with the eye of an assassin. So the story began there.” The story did not come together, though, Mantel explained, until 2010, when, after she had undergone surgery herself, a morphine dream showed her the right door to knock on, allowing her to complete her vision. “Now that we are here at last, there is all the time in the world,” she writes in “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher.” “The gunman kneels, easing into position. He sees what I see, the glittering helmet of hair. He sees it shine like a gold coin in a gutter, he sees it big as the full moon.” All it will take to erase it is “One easy wink of the world’s blind eye.”
In reality, of course, that wink never happened; Thatcher left the Windsor hospital unscathed and died of a stroke 30 years later, in 2013. But behind fiction’s door, Mantel shows, anything can happen; and in the mind’s eye, perhaps it already has.