Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher review – Hilary Mantel's new collection

The phenomenal narrative engine of the Cromwell novels only fires in fits and starts in this flawed but but absorbing selection

Hilary Mantel
‘You go and make the tea and I’ll sit here and mind the gun’ … Hilary Mantel. Photograph: Ray Tang/Rex

Short stories have a way of turning innocent readers into exacting aestheticians. Their brevity invites us to engage with them as formal structures in a way that novels generally don't. We judge them as artefacts even as we consume them as narrative, and consciously or not, we demand all kinds of contradictory things from them. We want them to feel inventive but uncontrived, lifelike but extraordinary, surprising but inevitable, illuminating but mysterious, resolved but open-ended. It's a tall order, as anyone who has tried to write one will know.
    Hilary Mantel's collection opens and closes with stories of male intruders, the first of which, "Sorry to Disturb", beautifully fulfils all of the above criteria. Set in Saudi Arabia during the 80s, it charts a series of increasingly unwelcome visits by a Pakistani businessman to the married narrator's flat in Jeddah after she lets him in one day to use her phone.
    As Ijaz, the businessman, progresses from grateful stranger to possessive suitor, and the narrator finds herself trapped between his overbearing attentions and her own wish not to give offence, the story becomes a comedy of cross-cultural sexual politics that manages to be moving and disturbing as well as very funny.

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