If you loved Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall novels, this collection of stories will convince you that she can capture modern people at least as well as medieval ones showing all their foibles and unachieved dreams.
Mantel’s prose is startling clear, her metaphors striking but en pointe, and her feel for characters both rich and sure. She has a ready feel for plot and for infusing her stories with a deep feel for the mysterious.
In the opener, “Sorry to Disturb,” she portrays a sick British ex-pat living in Saudi Arabia, who is almost a prisoner in her own apartment (because of women’s very restricted social and cultural standing there.) An Asian foreign man starts to visit her in the afternoons and though he is married, she immediately suspects his lack of good intentions. When he tells her that she reminds him of his first American girlfriend who was risque, she knows her perceptions are right.
But the narrator’s intentions are equally unclear and when furniture pieces begin moving on their own in her living room, the reader is not sure exactly where the story is heading. Two Saudi women friends whom she meets for tea and conversation allow her to peek into lives very different from her own.
“Comma” centers on the friendship of two young girls, one much poorer than the other. The narrator, Kitty, is only eight and newly discovering her independence which often consists of squatting in a field with her older friend Mary. Mary is considered to be a bad seed in town, particularly by Kitty’s mother, who forbids her daughter to play with Mary. But the older girl opens the world up to young Kitty, leading her to a vantage point near a manor where isomeone lives on a wheeled cot, someone with almost no face and who is bent and curled like a large comma. The two girls become fascinated by this special needs person, and Mary does something that will haunt Kitty forever.
“The Long QT” and “Harley Street” both describe love affairs that end in surprising ways, one from the point of a philandering husband at his wife’s own party, the other from the daughter of a cheating lawyer.
The title story audaciously imagines the assassination of Britain’s woman prime minister when a stranger invites himself in a woman’s house in a posh neighborhood. The narrator is expecting a plumber and thinks this terrorist is her repairman, but amazingly does not get very upset when he turns out not to know a thing about pipes--at least of the water kind.
Mantel’s stories are rich with insight into the human condition. She understands people well and her tales spin their magic in the most exquisite language. They are built on a solid foundation of storytelling. Check out this superb collection.
If you like the women characters, ironic stances and offbeat humor, consider reading Margaret Atwood’s collection Moral Disorder.