Twice winner of the prestigious Man Booker Prize for her historical novels “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies,” Hilary Mantel takes a break from Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell in “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher,” 10 quirky, unsettling and sometimes predictable stories.
The title story is the best: Margaret Thatcher has had an eye operation in a clinic in a quiet, shady neighborhood in Windsor where the narrator has a third-floor flat.
With Thatcher scheduled to be discharged that day, her expected appearance has occasioned noisy street protests. “There are some strong opinions flying about,” one resident remarks. “Mine is a dagger,” the narrator retorts, “and it’s flying straight to her heart.”
With her political views established, the story opens with a doorbell ring, and she welcomes a man she thinks is a plumber. When he sets out his tools, however, it becomes clear that he is actually a gunman planning to shoot Thatcher from the front window.
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Over cups of tea, the fidgety assassin and his solicitous hostess talk about his motives (Ireland), his future (“they’ll shoot me dead”) and their mutual disdain of the prime minister. To give away the ending would be a spoiler, but it’s brilliant.
Less so are the shorter stories such as “The Long QT,” in which a wife coming into her kitchen during a party discovers her husband embracing his lover. She drops the wineglasses that she is carrying, collapses and, to her husband’s horror, dies. Did his philandering kill her? A sly twist complicates his guilt.
In “Winter Break” — with another twist ending — a middle-aged couple on vacation find themselves on a terrifying taxi ride to their hotel. The husband is an opinionated bore who never wanted children; the wife is resigned.
Suddenly there is a thud, the driver investigates, and when he returns stuffs a bundle into the trunk. The wife imagines it is “Tomorrow’s dinner. Seethed in onion and tomato sauce.” At the hotel, a glimpse tells her that it is not. The problem with surprise endings is that they are often not a surprise.
Several longer, deeper stories display the deft characterization, ingenious description and poetic cadence for which Mantel is justly famous. Recounting her father’s infidelity, the narrator of “Offenses Against the Person” notices “the colors people turn when they’re lying.”
“Sorry to Disturb,” originally published as a memoir in the London Review of Books, captures the oppression — of heat and patriarchal social mores — in Saudi Arabia, where Mantel lived with her husband in the early 1980s. Trapped in her dark, roach-infested apartment, the narrator allows inside a man asking to use her telephone; despite the risk to her reputation, she lets him come again and again, even involving her husband in meeting him and his family.
But what at first seems to be a harmless transgression comes to feel intrusive and menacing. She decides to cut him off, asking her husband to write to him forbidding him to return.
Mantel’s fictional worlds are pervaded by menace, her characters beset by infidelity, illness, loneliness and sometimes the uncanny: a woman sees her dead father in a train station; another sees her sister, who died from anorexia, “bathed in a nimbus of frost.”
The best of these stories will have to serve Mantel’s fans until the eagerly awaited finale of her Cromwell trilogy appears.
The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, by Hilary Mantel (242 pages; Henry Holt; $27)