The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel

the assassination of margaret thatcherTen out of ten…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Having previously only read Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning historical novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, both of which I loved, I was intrigued to see how her rather slow-burning style in those books would convert to short, contemporary fiction. I’m pleased to say the answer is very well indeed – Mantel shows she is a mistress of this format just as much as the novel. Although the ten stories in this book weren’t written specifically as a collection, there is a common theme that runs through them of women somewhat trapped in their lives, usually either by physical circumstances or by social constriction; and several of the stories feel quite autobiographical in tone, giving the impression that Mantel has perhaps drawn heavily on her own experiences.

Mary with her scrawny arms, her knee-caps like saucers of bone, her bruised legs, her snigger and her cackle and her snort. Some unknown hand, her own perhaps, had placed on her rat-tails a twisted white ribbon; by afternoon it had skewed itself around to the side, so that her head looked like a badly-tied parcel.

I was expecting beautiful writing and I was hoping for some moving, thought-provoking subject matter and the book has both in spades. What came as a surprise to me though was the rather wicked humour that appears in many of the stories – Mantel uses her keen observation of human nature to make us laugh out loud with the characters at some points, and at others traps us with a kind of wry cynicism into laughing at them. She brings an almost conspiratorial edge to some of the stories, where she and the reader know more than the narrator, allowing us to share a deliciously guilty feeling of superiority.

I enjoyed each of the stories, but here are just a couple that particularly stood out for me –

Harley Street is a story of a group of women working in a doctors’ practice in Harley Street (where the posh people in the UK go to have their hypochondria pampered). Told in the first person by a narrator who thinks she understands people but really misses the big things right under her nose, this humorous story, like many of the others, has a bittersweet edge. The three women are fundamentally alone and lonely and we see the ebb and flow of their attempts to connect with each other. In the end, though, the humour wins out and I found myself chuckling merrily as Mantel and I winked knowingly at each other behind the poor narrator’s back.

How Shall I Know You? is a brilliantly told story of a once successful author visiting literary societies in obscure places to give talks on her work. The descriptions of the shabby hotels, the aspiring writers thrusting their manuscripts at her, the questions she has answered a hundred times before, are so cringe-makingly funny they must be based on truth! But there is a much darker side to this story and in the end Mantel left this reader at least rather wishing she hadn’t found quite so much to laugh at in the narrator’s life. A fine example of how a couple of sentences can change the reader’s perception.

Hilary Mantel
Hilary Mantel

Not all the stories are as quirky as these. The first one, Sorry to Disturb, very autobiographical in feel, is a longer story of a woman living as an ex-pat in Jeddah and finding herself having to conform to the very different expectations of women in that society. Another, The Heart Fails Without Warning, is a dark and rather disturbing story of a young girl watching her anorexic sister starve herself close to the point of death.

The final story, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, gives the collection its title,  and is the only one written specifically for this collection, I believe. It seems to have raised a storm of criticism because of the subject matter and to be honest Mrs Thatcher is too recently dead for me to feel that it’s in the best taste (her children are, after all, still alive). However, it’s an interesting take on just how hated Mrs Thatcher was by a large minority in her day, and while personally I thought it was one of the weakest in the collection, it is still well-written and very readable.

Overall, as with any collection, some of the stories are stronger than others, and occasionally there’s a twist at the end which is just a little too neat. But overall this short book is a great read. The stories are varied enough that almost everyone is bound to find something to their taste, and the quality of the writing and characterisation is so good that it outweighs any weaknesses in the plots. Dare I say it? The perfect Christmas gift…

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Amazon US Link

53 thoughts on “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel

  1. Stellar review, I think, FEF! It’s not usual that you give a book five smileys! Harley Street sounds like a really good one. And the last story in the book sounds as if it would be quite an interest, actually.

    Now, FEF, how can something be too neat? *laughs a bit maybe*

    • Thank you! Yay! A Monday stellar! But I give more books 5 smileys than any other rating – in fact, than all other ratings put together. It’s just that everybody remembers my 1-star reviews better… *laughs* (346 reviews on blog – 182 5-stars, 8 1-stars)

      Well, take your wig, for an example. Doesn’t it look better when it’s mussed up than all neat? I think so…

        • Order me?!? Ooh, you’re so brave! But maybe I should read more Twain…

          I don’t know. Maybe you tidy it up each morning and go off to walk about a bit in a spiffy suit and bowler hat… in fact, I imagine you do. It’s a nice word!

            • Yes, sir!!! *giggles disobediently* I don’t believe he had good intentions – I think he was wickedly wicked…

              Of course, you’d have to spell it mss – which is pretty unbelievable, I admit. Think how warm your head will be in winter though…

            • *laughs* What can be done with you? Yes, sorta like me, I suppose.

              We only cut out useless u’s, mind you! Well, I don’t need it. I wear a beanie–all the time in the winter. Did you know that?

            • Nothing, I fear – I’m a hopeless case! Only not so cute…

              I didn’t know that. In fact, I don’t agree. I think I’ll imagine you wear a much more interesting hat – one like Napoleon’s maybe…cool! *nods head decisively*

            • Aw! I’m glad I’m wonderful at something!

              You see, I have no problems with beanies as hats – in fact, they can look good and serve their primary head-warming function well. But…as a word! Nope! Why beanie? What a silly name! I bet they were given that name by an American…

            • I suppose I am really – the concert violin recitals, the Olympic trampolining, the first woman on the moon… (talking of which, my name is going into space…!!! Yours could too… if only you’d spotted my tweet…)

              But do they growl when you tickle them?

            • Yay!!! I wonder if we’ll meet any aliens! Carter? Or Wayne?

              *laughing* Beanies must mean something different in America…but it’s a lovely image, you walking about with a little furry animal on your head…

            • I hope so! Well, both…but I meant Carter. Now I’m not sure. He was sorta weird in the last book.

              *laughs* Yes, it’s not supposed to be that. But I would walk around with animal on my head. Like a coon cap or something.

  2. I’ve noticed Hilary Mantel’s wicked humour before in other (non-historical) novels, and this sounds indeed like a short story collection to treasure. Oh, dear, will my self-imposed book-buying moratorium survive your glowing recommendation?

    • Definitely not! Buy it now! And if you don’t believe me, Lady Fancifull (see blog roll) has also given it the seal of approval – and it’s so rare for us to like the same book that proves this one must be special… 😉

  3. FictionFan – This really does sound like a great collection. As you say, the ‘title track’ isn’t perhaps in the very best of taste, but Mantel is very talented, and I do like her wit. And that’s to say nothing of her writing skill. Hmmm…..v-e-r-r-ry tempting!

    • Very enjoyable, Margot! (And short!) Having read so little of her stuff, I wasn’t sure she’d be any good at the short story format, so was delighted to be wrong. I must try to fit in one or two of her more contemporary novels some time…

  4. I have, of course, read the press about The Assassination Of Margaret Thatcher and have been intrigued by the book. I will definitely be giving it a read after this fab review.

    Onward with the new Poirot – Gosh, Catchpool is annoying, isn’t he? I get that he was forced to attend the body of his dead grandfather when he was small, but his crippling fear of the dead bodies is a bit strange (seeing as he is a policeman). He needs to man up! And he is so rude to poor Poirot. Considering he admits himself he hasn’t a clue about the case, you would think he would be a bit more grateful. Anyway, there are a few nice turns of phrase here and there and I have read far worse so will plough on with it. Things would be better all round if someone murdered Catchpool and Hastings stepped in, if you ask me.

    • Thank you! I think you’ll enjoy this – clever writing without being too precious about it, you know?

      Haha! Isn’t he? I really wanted to hit him over the head with a brick. Now there’s a murder no-one would be rushing to solve. And back in those days I’d think most kids had to look at corpses of their dead relatives…I kept waiting for there to be more to it, like the body suddenly rising up in the coffin or turning into a zombie or something… However, glad you’re ploughing on…can’t wait to hear what you make of the the big denouement…!!! *chuckles wickedly*

      • Oooh I can’t wait to get to that bit!! Also, why is Poirot constantly stroking his ‘moustaches’? He never used to stroke himself (pardon the expression). And why is he so shy about people knowing who he is? I could go on and on, frankly, but I am putting those things to one side. But flippin’ Catchpool… I will keep you informed of my progress 😀

          • Bless her, it’s not like she is a bad writer, it’s just that I am such a huge Poirot fan! Had it been any other detective I would not be quite so penicketty about it. It’s all getting rather a little silly, now, and I am on the verge of strangling Catchpool…

  5. Ha Ha I’m amused to think there were both were, compulsively page turning – a bit like a box of very rich chocolates with surprising more-ish flavours, which you know you really really should stop eating, but keep going ‘just one more…….’

    And (even more accord – I too felt the final story WAS one of the weakest)

    I didn’t want to draw attention (though am doing so here) but could not but be aware that as Mantel has got older, and in part because of THE HAIR, she actually begins to look a little like the non-assassinated one. Not a comparison she would enjoy, I’m sure

    • It was nice to read something in bite-size chunks for a change! I loved the Winter Break story too – it might appear on Tuesday Terror sometime. I felt it was quite du Maurier-ish in style…

      Ooh, you’re very wicked! I’m making no comments about authors’ personal appearance since the dreadful ‘bad hair day’ incident, which still figures in my nightmares…never know who might be reading… 😉

    • Thanks, Christi! 😀 Yes, if you’re a fan of short stories in general, I think you’ll probably really enjoy this one – she’s very skilled at hooking the reader’s attention, and the stories are nicely varied…

  6. Mantel does wicked humour in a lot of her books. Do try ‘Beyond Black’. I am no lover of the short story form as I’m sure you know but this is one collection that i shall have to get hold of, simply because since the first time I discovered Mantel I have read everything she has written. I am rather proud of the fact that I ‘knew’ Hilary Mantel before she was HILARY MANTEL, if you see what I mean.

    • Certainly after reading these, I’d like to read some of her more contemporary stuff – thanks for the recommendation. I shall take a look at ‘Beyond Black’…

      I know exactly what you mean – there’s something special about getting in on author before they make it big. I feel like that about Jane Casey…and fully expect to be thrilled one day when Patrick Flanery finally makes a real breakthrough…

    • Definitely one for your Christams list, I feel! Haha! Yes, that story was particularly sharply observed – I did wonder how people will react the next time she turns up to give a talk… 😉

    • Thanks! Me too! I wasn’t sure whether she’d be good at short stories, but she really did them brilliantly. Even the less good ones are some of the best stories I”ve read this year… 🙂

  7. Another brilliant review of a book who had only breached my consciousness through its title which I thought was a marketing ploy. I’m not a big fan of short stories but this does sound like a collection I’d enjoy as I love sharp observations. So good to see you’ve found a good read!

    • Yes, I think you’re right – the title is a bit of a marketing ploy. And actually the story isn’t the best in the book by any stretch, though even the less good ones in this are very, very good. I think you might enjoy these – very insightful about women in all kinds of situations… 🙂

  8. Nice collection. Short stories aren’t necessarily my favorite, but these do appear to be good ones. Love that they got the five smilies. And, as always, I enjoy reading YOUR writing.

    • Thank you, LR! I seem to be reading far more short stories than I used to – I never really used to enjoy the format much. But these really are good, and though they’re short, you feel as if each one is a proper, full story.

  9. Sounds a good one. As you know, I love short stories, and I’m sure I’ll survive the “bad taste” of The Assassination………. .

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