On hearing that there was to be a new book by Hilary Mantel this year, pulses quickened within certain literary circles. The two multi-award-winning installments in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy have reinvigorated the historical novel and made readers and critics hungry for the final part. However, "The Mirror and the Light" isn't due to be published until 2015. To stave off disappointment, Mantel has served up "The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher," a collection of 10 stories. It may lack the heartiness of her last two offerings, but it still satisfies as a substantial snack between courses.
Many of the stories involve searching backward glances. "Comma" concerns a woman remembering childhood exploits over a hot summer with a former friend. "How Shall I Know You?" is a hilarious but cringe-making account of a biographer dredging up memories of a nightmare trip she made to give a lecture to a literary society.
Some stories such as "Winter Break" and "The Long QT" meander gently along before transforming themselves in their closing pages into tales of the unexpected. Conversely, in "Terminus," Mantel hits us not with a shock conclusion but a shock opening: One morning the narrator espies her dead father on a London train. Not only is he alive, he looks younger, "as though death had moved him back a stage."
As with most collections, some stories are stronger than others. "Harley Street" runs on spry prose but stalls with every weak gag (a gynecologist called Mr. Smear). The luridly titled "The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher," however, is a master class in pitch-black comedy. The story's narrator sips tea with an IRA sniper while waiting for the British prime minister to walk into his cross hairs. One hyperbolically irreverent rumination follows another: "She lives on the fumes of whiskey and the iron in the blood of her prey."
While neatly crafted, that story is not the book's finest. "Sorry to Disturb" steals the show. Originally subtitled "A Memoir," the story, like Mantel's 1988 novel "Eight Months on Ghazzah Street," draws on the author's firsthand experience of living as a foreigner in Saudi Arabia. Mantel threads in a mini-plot regarding a Pakistani businessman, but the story's main pull is Mantel's wryly acute observations on everything from women's roles in society to the twin ordeals of visiting restaurants and malls.
If there is a common theme here, then it is the frailties and peculiarities of human relations. We witness the fragility of marriage and transitory nature of friendship, bouts of loneliness and equally harsh interaction. When one man launches an unprovoked attack on another, "precipitating him into a drear and filthy ginnel," we are put in mind of the language of "Wolf Hall."
Which returns us to Mantel's long-awaited next novel. She has brought up the bodies and now brought us this masterly collection of stories. It is time to bring on her glorious third act.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.