“The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher” by Hilary Mantel (Henry Holt, 242 pages, $27)
If you know Hilary Mantel from her Booker Prize-winning historical novels “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies,” expect something different from this short-story collection. The 10 stories, originally published between 1993 and 2012, are set largely in the present day and concern themselves largely with ordinary people.
Some take place during a single cab or train ride; others span months or even years. Some are set in England; others abroad. The thread of illness is woven through many of them: an acute heart condition, anorexia, or simply vague hints at unspecified afflictions.
The most memorable of the bunch is “Winter Break,” which starts as the unassuming story of a couple on vacation and ends with a creepy, Stephen King-like twist. The title story comes last, and tells of an imagined attempt on the prime minister’s life by an IRA gunman who has barged into a woman’s house to take aim from her window, but also gets small talk and cups of tea.
Mantel’s writing is a delight: deft and artful, spare when it can be and colored with incisive detail when it needs to be. A B&B is described as “part of a long white terrace, four stories high, with two surprised attic windows”; a flowerbed is “so scarlet, as if the earth had bled through the pavements.”
But the characters seem deliberately sketchy, left in the shadows. People move in and out of the periphery. We don’t get full pictures of most of them, which is somewhat expected with short stories but can make it more difficult for a reader to connect with what’s happening (or not happening) to them and around them. In many of the stories, the plot never really “jells” either – the story narrates a series of events that happen, and then it simply stops.
The difference is that in a novel, there’s time to get to know a character like Thomas Cromwell, regarded more or less as a villain in history, and see his motivations and personality in a greater context and a different, perhaps more sympathetic light. With these short stories, though, there’s not that kind of time or depth, so disagreeable people stay rather disagreeable, and the loose ends of lives remain untied.
Lisa McLendon teaches journalism at the University of Kansas. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.