Hilary Mantel has long been attracted to, even enlivened by, bad behavior, as in her exquisite re-creation of Henry VIII's court in the trilogy that began with Wolf Hall.
The title story of her cunning and visionary new collection, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher
, is further proof of this: Mantel can't conceal her relish at imagining the late British prime minister offed by a sniper's bullet. Some in England have been offended by the topic, but Mantel's delight in her material doesn't mean she takes it lightly. She intends to expose what is really in her characters' hearts, no matter how benign they appear on the surface. In these ten stories, she ingeniously succeeds, managing to simultaneously startle and seduce by juxtaposing horror and humor, derision and empathy, passivity and aggression. Murderous impulse is served with tea.
The first story, "Sorry to Disturb," is overtly autobiographical, about an Englishwoman who lives with her husband in Saudi Arabia (as Mantel once did). Isolated and unwell, she opens the door to a visitor who may be a friend, a predator, or both. When the couple moves on, the wife wonders whether her stay in Jeddah has left her "condemned to see life skewed."
But Mantel's perspective, apparently as off-kilter as that of her characters, is no handicap. She observes how things shift and refuse to be what they seem, especially the monsters hiding in plain sight. In "The Long QT," adultery is less about desire than about the futile self-regard that drives it. In "Harley Street," a mordantly funny take on vampires, the officious narrator Miss Todd can't see the bloodthirsty Mrs. Bathurst as a danger to her—only a terrible drag—and chides her to file her nails and "dump" the cape.
And about that unforgettable, controversial title story: What is ultimately most shocking is not its politics but the tenderness Mantel creates between narrator and assassin. They share the will to misbehave and also to throw off helplessness at last, to slay their hidden monsters, even at the risk of becoming monstrous themselves.