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Hilary Mantel's short-story collection long on controversy

Hilary Mantel's short-story collection long on controversy
Author Hilary Mantel and the cover of her book, "The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher." (John Haynes / Henry Holt)

The title story of Hilary Mantel's new collection was embargoed, then published simultaneously in the Guardian and the New York Times newspapers, and now has conservative British politicians calling for her arrest.

Has any short-story collection ever had — or deserved — such heralding?

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Certainly, Mantel deserved her two Booker Prizes for "Wolf Hall" in 2009 and "Bring Up the Bodies" in 2013, the first two volumes of her trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, advisor to King Henry XVIII. These books are her greatest achievement and make her nine earlier novels seem like preparatory exercises. Her depiction of Cromwell's vast, capacious intelligence is a near-miracle of composition, and it is tempting to conflate his mind, so Shakespearean in humanity and scope, with the author's.

But anyone coming from the Cromwell novels to these arch, contemporary tales faces an adjustment. Here is the Mantel of her earlier, darker kitchen-sink novels: harsh and comic, even derisive. Her eye gleefully seeks the unsavory — the "glistening snail trail" of mucous, "horrible stumpy gnawed-off nails." A bed has a "turd-colored candlewick cover," an anorexic vomits "in a weak acid dribble." Such aperçus are not inaccurate, and they're often funny (An air conditioner "rattled away, like an old relative with a loose cough"), and also often quite mean.

The cumulative effect is a grim, itchy reality where tenderness is rare and the lion's share of humanity is accorded to an assassin. (Of course, Mantel's great achievement in the Cromwell books is to make that legendary killer sympathetic.)

The superb title story tells of a woman who, expecting a plumber, instead admits a gunman to her flat. The woman is not unsympathetic to his cause — eliminating Margaret Thatcher — although they disagree on motive; hers is an abhorrence of Thatcher's inhumanity and hairdo; his is singular: Ireland. Mantel humanizes the killer with frayed cuffs, slippery nylon jacket and that he's unloved ("I don't get very far with the lasses"). There's an air of the saint about him, of suffering ennobled, and the woman, now his accomplice, wishes to save him.

There's a whiff of the saint too about Morna, an anorexic girl willing her way to death through countless battles with parents, doctors and social workers in "The Heart Fails Without Warning." The story concludes in a luminous vision fit for a 14th century painting: "around Morna there is a bubble of quiet … she wears no readable human expression. But at her feet a white dog lies, shining like a unicorn, a golden chain about its neck."

These sidelong hints at religious purpose are as close as Mantel comes to epiphany, let alone transcendence.

Mantel writes with great economy and control. The stories are intricately constructed and subtle, if sometimes oblique. Shared elements echo and glint at one another; intrusions, trespasses and faulty hearts recur, as do female writers prone to migraines and seeing ghosts, and mouthy young girls.

"Sorry to Disturb" was first published in the London Review of Books as a memoir, but its shapeliness and dramatic arc draw so heavily from fiction's toolbox that it passes as either. A young wife living in Jidda, Saudi Arabia, is essentially confined to her house all day. Destabilized by strong medications for an undisclosed malady, she listens to language tapes, keeps a diary, works on a comic novel and visits the other wives in her building, a Pakistani and a Saudi. "Spent two hours with my neighbor," says a diary entry, "widening the cultural gap." One day, the narrator unwisely lets a distressed businessman come in to use her phone. Allowing this and his subsequent incursions, she inadvertently encourages his attentions, which becomes increasingly problematic.

"How Shall I Know You" is a take-no-prisoners send-up of the author book tour; the narrator, a migraine-suffering biographer, is sardonic and, well, just plain mean. Engaged to speak to a book group ("…many had beards, including the women"), she is put up in a dingy hotel where her bellhop is a tiny, misshapen young woman named Louise. "An indoor smog hovered." Hilariously, the biographer wonders, "what would Anita Brookner do?" When the resident men abuse Louise the narrator feels for her, but any real generosity is never an option.

Anita Brookner would never be so grim.

Even Mantel's children tend to be underloved, smart-mouthed and infected with natural cruelty. In "Comma," 8-year-old Kitty, with a forbidden older friend, spies on a big house hoping to see an invalid. ("It is like a comma … its squiggle of a body, its lolling head."). If caught, Kitty has a lie ready: "I'll say I was out punctuating." Mostly, both girls marvel that anything so minimally human could be so tenderly cared for.

Mantel is not above constructing a story around a punch line, a pun, an O. Henry twist. In "The Long QT" (the title comes from a heart disorder that can lead to sudden death), a husband kissing another woman imagines, should his wife "blunder in," telling her to "be more French about it." Blunder in the wife does but with quite other results (see title).

Relentless bleakness, what Mantel may deem the opposite of sentimentality, is its own limitation, a shadow sentimentality that also omits at the author's whim large swatches of life: the loveliness and mercy. And for what?

A low tone of anger runs through the collection, surfacing in cackles and quips, but lower still is the rumble of pain. In "Terminus," the narrator spots her dead father on another train and vainly pursues him to Waterloo Station. The story is a plaint, a paean to the eternally unfinished business between daughter and father and the ongoing search for the necessary love that was never — and never will be — received.

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Huneven's most recent novel is "Off Course."

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher

Hilary Mantel
Henry Holt: 256 pp, $27

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