I hate reading and reviewing short story collections, mainly because I find them quite difficult to judge based on the usual suspects: character development, plot arc, world-building. I made an exception for Hilary Mantel’s The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher for two reasons. Firstly, I had struggled to finish the first book in her heralded Thomas Cromwell trilogy, Wolf Hall, and felt fair was fair in giving her a second shot. Secondly, as her editors probably intended, I was drawn in by the lurid title and cover imagery – hey, at least I admit I’m a gullible sucker.
The titular story went last in order but was my first in preference. A sniper breaks into an apartment across from the hospital where Margaret Thatcher recovers from eye surgery, to the surprise of it’s occupant. The two of them then conspire about the plot about to unfold as they share mutual hatred for the victim, an eerily palpable feeling that bleeds through the page. Though it was an exciting snapshot of a “what if” in time, ultimately it ended not with a bang, but with a whimper.
Winter Break, my second favorite, reminded me slightly of The Hound of the Baskervilles, featuring a deadly incident in a dark and haunted moor. I also enjoyed The Heart Fails Without Warning, despite the narrator’s callousness towards her quickly-fading anorexic sister, and Sorry to Disturb, about an increasingly-mad British woman in Saudi Arabia being persistently bothered by a foreign man. As for the other stories, The Comma was about two girls’ sordid fascination with the deformed baby next door, and read as appallingly as it’s described here. How Shall I Know You? was flat out strange and incomprehensible while The Long QT, Harley Street, Offenses Against the Person, and Terminus were all blandly forgettable.
Overall, I found the collection rather jarring, wherein each story there was an unsatisfactory note that prevented me from being absorbed in the text. Adding to that, each story had an abrupt conclusion, ironically the opposite problem I had with her lengthy books. I must admit that Mantel’s descriptive powers are strong and I occasionally reveled in her genius turn of phrase, but I can safely say she is not among my favorite authors as much as I tried to like her work.