Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

"The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher" by Hilary Mantel (Fourth Estate, 2014)

Not long ago I read her story "Curved is the line of beauty", and was impressed. It's not in this book, many of whose stories were first published in the London Review of Books.

  • In "Sorry to Disturb" an English woman living in Saudi Arabia has to put up with rumours and an irritating repeat-visitor who wears "a fake Rolex" (how did she know?). She is secretly writing a book while the other foreigners think she's having fertility treatment. During the piece the narrator refers to her diary to remind herself of events - "June 6th: 'Spent two hours with my neighbour,' says my diary, 'widening the cultural gap.'" (p.13). She realises "I was doing what I had wriggled so hard to avoid, I was sheltering behind the mores of this society, off-loading the problem I had created for myself in a way that was feminine, weak and spiteful" (p.34). At the end the narrator looks back, sees her earlier self as "a relative stranger". "Even after all this time it's hard to grasp exactly what happened" (p.36). I wasn't surprise to find out that this piece was originally published as memoir.
  • "Comma" was in Best British Short Stories 2011. 2 little girls from different backgrounds are united by their curiosity about a handicapped baby. I liked most of it.
  • "The Long QT" has a good final line. That's all.
  • If in the middle of "Winter Break" (in BBSS 2011) you presume (like I did) that a child's been run over but the reader's supposed to think that a goat has, does the story work? Not for me.
  • I didn't see any point in "Harley Street". I presume it's a vampire story.
  • I didn't get the point of "Offences Against the Person". Out of the blue there was "After Christmas I stayed on in the office while plans were made for my future. Something had gone amiss at university. Though no actual bloodshed. We won't go into it here" (p.121).
  • In "How Shall I Know You?", the identity of "You" increasingly becomes the persona who increasingly fabricates. It has a good final sentence, but seems too long for what it is. It includes the curious "There were school corridors, and those polished shields on the wall that say things like 'JK Rowling, Cantab 1963'" (p.151)
  • "The Heart Fails Without Warning", about eating disorders, doesn't do enough.
  • I like the idea of, and much of the execution of, "Terminus"
  • The title story is online. It feels like a missed opportunity, good in parts - "visible but not seen, you could loiter for a day. You could sleep here; you could dream. Neither innocent nor guilty, you could skulk here for decades, while the alderman's daughter grows old: between step and step, grow old yourself, slip the noose of your name. One day Trinity Place will fall down, in a puff of plaster and powdered bone. Time will draw to a zero point, a dot: angels will pick through the ruins, kicking up the petals from the gutters, arms wrapped in tattered flags" (p.236)

Other reviews

  • Robert Collins (Guardian) (In some of the stories, it’s hard not to wince at the creak of melodrama)
  • James Lasdun (Guardian) (10 stories; some of them slight and occasionally dated (there's a lesbian-themed satire on Harley Street that seems to come from a very distant era); four or five flawed successes and interesting failures; one knockout. "Sorry to Disturb" ... is easily the best in the book ... Generally, these stories succeed best where they are furthest away from the machinery of their plots and devices)
  • Leyla Sanai (Independent)
  • Erica Wagner (New Statesman)
  • Simon Schama (Financial Times)
  • Maureen Corrigan (NPR) (I'd deem only one to be dispensable: It's a soft, impressionistic piece called Terminus ... the best story in this collection, the one called How Shall I Know You ...)
  • Terry Castle (New York Times) (vastly entertaining, Even as one appreciates the suave authorial style — light, pared-down, technically scintillating, like the Olympic gymnast who nails her landing every time — one has the sense too that Mantel is working with some fairly edgy and complex private material in these contemporary fables.)
  • Charles E. May (I reckon I am just not intelligent enough or quirky enough, to appreciate Mantel's adolescent game-playing with disfigurement, birth defects, attempted assassination, and rants about poor hotel accommodations. Not to mention, just plain sloppy, rough draft writing. More like very poor "Twilight Zone" than Edgar Allan Poe. Not worth my time. Not worth yours. Unless you are just bound and determined to reward nastiness and condescension and shameless exploitation of one's own fame. The short story deserves better. Mantel is certainly no "master" of the form)
  • Valerie O’Riordan (Bookmunch>

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