The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher

mantelI usually like Hilary Mantel’s work, but I was disappointed by this collection of short stories.

Most stories started well, showing promise with vivid evocative imagery, but stalled instead of leading to a satisfying conclusion. The writer’s emphasis seemed to be on creating a mood (mostly dark) rather than a completed narrative journey.

For me, the satisfying exceptions are the titular The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, an  “alternative history” with hints of dark comedy, and another called Winter Break which describes a wild, countryside taxi ride leading to a frightening destination.

While the rest of the collection had moments of appeal, they didn’t fulfil the expectations I have for a story. They had a repeated unfinished feel where I was left wondering what the point had been.

I’ve come across story collections like that before where the collection as a whole was saved by the subtle drawing together by cross references and overlaps between stories.

Maybe I missed it, but that saving feature was lacking here.



Fictional Discoveries and a Memoir or Two

Looking back through this year’s reading list I find that I’ve discovered (and rediscovered) several authors that I’d love to read again. I’ve added their other books to my wishlist.

Starting at the beginning of the year the discoveries have included:

Joan Aiken – a good way to start the year. Although I first read her Wolves of Willoughby Chase at the end of last year, it was the next book, Blackhearts in Battersea that really won me over. I soon bought the remaining books of the “Wolves” series and started working my way through them. The books are a fun alternative history, using rich and amusing language and could be seen as a precursor to the “Steam Punk” genre.

David Mitchell – I’d read Black Swan Green a couple of years ago and finally got around to reading Cloud Atlas, an inventive and highly readable book spanning various time periods using language and writing formats relevant to each era (including those of the future). It also has a very interesting structure   . Mitchell is an excellent interview subject and I’ve  enjoyed hearing several recorded interviews I was able to track down via google.

Salman Rushdie was someone I struggled with when I read The Satanic Verses, but his memoir, Joseph Anton was compelling from the first page. During the reading of this, when I reached the part where he described the writing of his first children’s book, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, I took a short time-out to read that book. Its dedication to his son Zafar has to be one of the most poignant pieces of writing I’ve come across.

Zadie Smith is someone I initially gave up on. Her first book White Teeth is one of the very few books I’ve abandoned since I started my reading list a few years ago. But she won me over through a few recorded interviews I listened to and I gave her writing another go and enjoyed The Autograph Man and Changing My Mind. Like David Mitchell she is an intelligent and articulate interview subject. Eventually I’ll give White Teeth another try, but not until I’ve read her most recent book NW.

Nadeem Aslam – clearly there’s a trend to be seen here. Yet another I was inspired to read after hearing a radio interview. I could listen to him for hours. The interview related to his most recent book The Blind Man’s Garden, a non-partisan story about the effects of the “War on Terror” in Afghanistan. A genuinely sensual book, with vivid use of all of the senses to portray  convincing  experiences shared by a community affected by an imposed war.

Hilary Mantel – did I mention the trend? Should I point out yet another radio interview connection? Hearing her talk about her work led me to her memoir Giving Up the Ghost, and back to her fiction. I’d previously read Wolf Hall and now have the sequel Bring Up the Bodies on my “to be read” list.

There are some others on this year’s list I could mention, but they aren’t exactly new discoveries (or rediscoveries) more like old acquaintances who I can trust to give me an entertaining read.

But before I close this post I can’t afford to leave out Kate Atkinson. Started Early Took My Dog is the first novel of hers that I’ve read and I’m confident it won’t be the last. It has an intriguing plot alternating between two time periods (1975 and the ‘present’). There are multiple characters who are slowly shown to be connected to each in some way, drawn together by events and actions of the past. I haven’t finished it yet, so hopefully the conclusion will match what I’ve read so far.

Throughout this post I’ve mentioned recorded interviews with authors. Some of the best sites I’ve found for interviews are:

Hilary Mantel’s memoir (and thoughts of my own) with just a hint of Rushdie

Hilary Mantel is a double winner of the Man Booker Prize, first for Wolf Hall and then for its sequel Bring Up the Bodies. These are the first parts of a trilogy about the life of Thomas Cromwell and his relationship with Henry VIII.

I read Wolf Hall two years ago and included my impressions of the book in an article here *:

Yesterday I received Bring Up the Bodies, something I’ll have to try to fit into my crowded reading schedule. But it’s another book by Mantel that I’ve been reading over the last few days, a memoir called Giving Up the Ghost.

Giving Up the GhostCompared to the last memoir I read (Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton – see note below*) this one is a small book, but it seems to contain far more than its size would suggest. I’m only 2/3 of the way into it, but there has already been a lot to keep me interested. I can identify with a few areas of her experience; from Derbyshire village life in the 1950s-60s (though she’s six years older than me); living in homes that have a “ghostly” presence; to the occasional “tip” for writers. She also has a liking for semi-colons.

The first half of the book recalls her childhood and she is able to create a cohesive narrative out of many fragments of memories.

I occasionally consider writing my own memoir (which at the most may be of interest to future generations of my family) and I can see how my account of childhood would be made up of fragments – just brief glimpses of things I did and saw; a few seconds of a movie playing in my head.

Things like an image of a holiday cottage beside a beach. At that cottage I recall lying in bed between my parents. I must have been under three years old because I was later told that my mum was pregnant with my sister at the time, and she is two years ten months younger than me. I also ecall a walk through the back garden of the cottage to get to the pebbly beach. There are other incidents of this holiday that I don’t remember myself, but I know of them through family conversations over the years. The difference between the actual memories and those recounted anecdotes is in the detail. The memories are snapshots or brief loops of “action”; while the anecdotes have a form of narrative.

In Mantel’s book the most covered part of her childhood is her primary school years and earlier. It is during this period that she gives up her belief in God after a strange unnerving experience in the garden of her home. An experience that she thinks God could have (should have) prevented – and because He didn’t, He couldn’t exist.

Like so many who have given up (or never had) belief in God, the conclusion of His non-existence was formed according to criteria of Mantel’s choosing. God didn’t fulfil her expectations, He didn’t act how she thought He should, and therefore He couldn’t be real.

Joseph AntonA similar thing came up in Salman Rushdie’s memoir, where the child Rushdie concluded God couldn’t exist because He’d never live in such an ugly “house of God” as the church building near his school. And in an interview (and maybe not in the book) Rushdie also told of how (as a “moslem” child) his ability to eat a ham sandwich without being struck down by an angry God gave him further certainty of God’s non-existence.

Surprisingly, the teen years of Mantel’s story are skimmed over in comparison to her pre-teen life. It is that period of my own younger days that I remember most, and my hypothetical memoir would perhaps need a separate volume to cover it.

I have now read up to the start of her adult life; her time at university and her early marriage. And how times have changed – Mantel’s marriage being an economic necessity; home life for two being more affordable than home life for two individuals, and culturally impossible for an unmarried couple to make a home together.

Even as an engaged couple they had difficulty finding “a place together in anticipation of [their] marriage…the landlords demanded certificates …to say that [they] had really booked the priest and registrar”.

I’ve already mentioned the size difference between this memoir and Rushdie’s, but that isn’t the most significant difference. Rushdie keeps a regular journal and that practice clearly helped and shaped the book he wrote. It is largely a straight forward narrative that avoids the playful approach to language and storytelling found in his novels.  Rushdie is getting his story across,  putting right the many false impressions of the “fatwah” years presented by others.

Mantel’s book is one of reflection rather than reporting;  remembering the past from an adult’s perspective, but not just as an adult; she writes as a mature literary writer interpreting her life from a present day vantage point. 


*I see that I had a problem with Mantel regularly using the term “he” to describe her main character in a way that made it difficult to determine exactly who was being referred to. That’s a problem I also found in Salman Rushdie’s memoir, where Rushdie continually referred to himself in the third person often making me unsure of whether he was referring to himself or someone else.