Heaven knows what the millions of purchasers of the Man Booker-winning Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies will make of the ten stories collected here, for they return us to the landscape occupied by Hilary Mantel’s last great contemporary novel, Beyond Black (2005). This, for those of you unfamiliar with her pre- (or rather post-) Tudor work is a world of fraught domestic interiors, twitches on the satirical thread and, above all, stealing over the shimmering Home Counties gardens and the thronged Thames Valley shopping malls, a faint hint of the numinous.
Make that a very strong hint of the numinous, for The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher fairly crackles with evidence of the supernatural making its presence felt. ‘Sorry to Disturb’ finds the narrator emerging into the sitting room of her flat to find that the furniture has re-arranged itself. ‘How Shall I Know You?’, on the other hand, charts the adventures of a writer put up for the night by the literary society she is bidden to address in an almost phantasmal B&B. Thinking that she smells gas she consequently dreams of ‘members of the Book Group rolling from beneath my bed, sniggering as they plugged the chinks round the windows and doors with the torn pages of their manuscripts.’
All this, though, the merest bagatelle compared to ‘Terminus’, whose railway carriage-bound expositor is convinced that a train pulling out of Clapham Junction on the way to Waterloo harbours the ghost of her dead father. ‘The Heart Fails Without Warning’, meanwhile, is a desperately creepy account of an anorexic girl zealously starving herself to death while the rest of the family, including a plump and exasperated younger sister, looks on. On the final page, when ‘all traces of Morna have gone from the bedroom now’, Lola looks out of the window at night and sees her figure ‘standing and looking up at the house, bathed in a nimbus of frost’.
As may already have become apparent, the relationships briefly outlined here are not easy ones. The bickering couple in ‘Winter Break’ are clearly making the best of a bad job, long before finding something nasty in the woodshed, or rather the boot of the taxi taking them to their holiday retreat in out-of-the-way Greece. Jodie’s discovery of her husband locked in a mid-party clinch with his fancy-woman in ‘The Long QT’ has literally fatal consequences, while ‘Harley Street’ sees an unexpected love affair quietly re-calibrating the lives of three women who labour haplessly on a medical practice’s administrative side.
If these accounts of a succession of all too wraith-like people making do and getting by have a distinguishing mark, it is Mantel’s relish of the funny-horrible, as in the title story which features the owner of a house overlooking the eye clinic where Mrs Thatcher is receiving treatment opening the door to an IRA sniper. Following close behind is a kind of submerged slyness, a stream of deft little character- or scene-deflating remarks so deeply embedded in the text that repeat readings are sometimes needed to winkle them out. Only rarely does Mantel let herself go, but the results are never less than spectacular, and when I came across the moments in ‘How Shall I Know You?’ when the narrator wonders how celebrated lady novelists would have behaved if similarly circumstanced (‘Come now, what would Anita Brookner do? For sure A.S. Byatt would have managed it better’) I am afraid I laughed out loud.
If much of the material here looks back to an older world, then the techniques on display always seem entirely authentic. ‘Comma’, for example, which features a couple of 1960s-era girls from the council terraces creeping through the bracken to spy out the secrets of the big house nearby, has a wonderful scene in which two middle-aged women lie exhausted in the sun, consoling themselves by drinking tea on the grounds that ‘it cools you down’. It is exactly what my grandmother used to say, back in the summers of long ago, whose undercurrents of tension and silent miseries Hilary Mantel so crisply and ominously evokes.
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