This is a collection of subversive short stories, the most notorious being The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher which the Daily Telegraph refused to publish despite paying a substantial sum for it.
Some Tories called author Hilary Mantel “sick and deranged” now a row has erupted at Radio 4’s plans to broadcast the short stories. Mantel combines sharply observed portraits of people and places with a humour that has you laughing and cringing at the same time.
The opening story is the semi-autobiographical Sorry to Disturb, set in 1980s Saudi Arabia. Mantel portrays the oppressive suffocation of life for a Western woman stuck in her gloomy ex-pat flat “with doors of dark wood, heavy like coffin lids”, while her taciturn husband is out at work all day. Her loneliness is broken by businessman Ijaz knocking at her door needing to use her phone.
He then calls on her daily and she finds it difficult to deal with his unwanted attention and her wish not to offend him. Another beautifully drawn story is How Shall I Know You? which is about a writer reluctantly travelling to a small town to attend a literary club.
She describes the depressing journey to a hotel from hell which doesn’t live up to its glossy brochure with its “tar of ten thousand cigarettes, fat of ten thousand breakfasts”. Thatcher makes her appearance in the final story, when a woman opens the door to an IRA gunman who wants to use her kitchen window to take a shot at the PM who is in the hospital opposite recovering from eye surgery.
What is unexpected is that the householder is more than happy to let him get on with it and makes him a cup of tea, and even offers to look after his gun as he goes to the toilet. They chat about their hate for Thatcher, who eventually emerges: “The bag on the arm, slung like a shield. The tailored suit…the glittering helmet of hair…like a gold coin in a gutter”.
It is Mantel’s talent for imagery that makes her stories come alive. She is celebrated for bringing the past to life in novels such as Wolf Hall, but with these stories she shows she is equally good at bringing the present to life with her startling and witty prose.