The morning after she won her first Man Booker Prize for Wolf Hall, I interviewed Hilary Mantel.
Exhausted, media-stunned but as averse to platitude as ever, she revealed a slightly unexpected source of inspiration for her fiction of the Tudor court: Saudi Arabia. With her geologist husband, Mantel lived on-and-off in the Kingdom for several years during the Eighties. It gave her, so she told me, an education in reading between the lines, interpreting from the margins, and in harvesting insight from nudges, winks and hints, as one prince “lauded” another on government TV. In the realm of hidden power, fates, and lives, may crack and shift without warning. So stay alert.
In “Sorry to Disturb”, the opening shot in this bracing – if often bleak – quiver of 10 stories, the narrator wonders if living in Jeddah “left me forever off-kilter on some way, tilted from the vertical”. Crucially, in the light of this book’s now-controversial title tale, she feels that “I can never be certain that doors will stay closed and on their hinges”. That goes, too, for the doors on which history swings.
“Sorry to Disturb” is told by an expat wife who scours old dairies for the evidence of her seething discontent within the gilded cage of a Jeddah flat. Originally published as “a memoir”, it evokes the prison of privilege endured by a woman “who had been made helpless”. Into it bursts a shambolic Pakistani businessman, Ijaz, whose friendship – first a diversion, then a burden – fails to offer any road to freedom. As streets mysteriously move, addresses vanish, and Saudi women languish in their pampered but shackled inanition, the world of Anne Boleyn or Jane Seymour looms not so far over the desert horizon. Equally present and correct is the snap and sting of Mantel’s wit, as deftly sculpted phrases (at a Valentine’s Day “cheese party”, “you had to imagine the wine”) skewer the insufferable reality.
In other stories, we meet women and girls entangled in different kinds of net or trap. They, and the reader, can feel as flayed and raw as the feral, heatwave-maddened kids in “Comma”. After yet another scorching day, they find that “you pulled off your sunburnt skin in frills and strips”. In childhood or adulthood, Mantel’s scourged heroines often present with their “skin off”. If this sounds grim, then a gift for comedy on the edge of panic seldom deserts her. No one else quite sounds like Mantel in this vein, although a top-level summit of Muriel Spark and Alan Bennett might conceivably come close.
Self-flagellation may play a part in these female ordeals. Yet Mantel takes care to show that there are many ways to wield a whip: by proxy, and in absentia, included. In “The Heart Fails Without Warning”, a teenager descends into anorexia inside a household toxic with concealment, strain and pain. There, parental cruelty need not leave any burn or scar. If “How Shall I Know You?” begins as an acrid satire on the literary life, as the weary writer-narrator schleps from one dingy book group to another, it morphs into another tale of female disempowerment and resistance when we meet Louise: the tough, hurt waif who does the heavy lifting at a truly hellish B&B.
Mantel takes absolutely nothing on trust. Bodies can, and will, malfunction; ditto minds, and marriages. Malice, power or simple chance may always undermine the ground beneath your feet. Women, who suffer most from this radical insecurity, also learn the dark arts of resilience. Words may help to unlock the door. To general expat derision or disbelief (“Hubby tells me you’re having a book published. That must be costing him a pretty penny”), the narrator of “Sorry to Disturb” writes, and successfully sells, a comic novel set in Saudi Arabia. As did Mantel: Eight Months on Ghazzah Street.
Mantel’s gothic note strikes time and again. The adulterous dad who hires his daughter as a temp in his Manchester law office (“Offences Against the Person”) calls her work “devilling”. We run across devilry aplenty in these pages, and on more than one occasion glimpse a “cloven hoof”. The whiff of sulphur never feels far away. Poor, anorexic Morna in her nightie comes to resemble “a wraith in a story by Edgar Allan Poe”. The dead may drift among the living, just as the departed father in “Terminus” materialises to his daughter in another grimy train on a parallel track, running into Waterloo: “I did not know, God help me, that the dead were loose”. As for the politician named in the title piece, our narrator thinks: “She lives on the fumes of whisky and the iron in the blood of her prey”.
With “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher” itself, that parallel track reappears. We should never expect a writer as cunning as Mantel to serve us a straightforward slice of alternative history. She does not. In a Windsor flat, on 6 August 1983, a calm, intelligent Irish assassin disguised as a plumber knocks on our semi-sympathetic narrator’s door. As they wrangle over politics, he sets up his equipment – Lee Harvey Oswald-style – at a window with perfect sightlines over the hospital entrance where the PM will shortly arrive for a minor eye operation. We do know that at the Grand Hotel in Brighton, a year later, the IRA very nearly hit their target. On 12 October 1984, the hinge swung another way.
Into her version of the recast past, Mantel inserts another jag or kink. It raises yet one more possibility. A “door in the wall” may at any point open in the impassable fabric of fact: “History could have always been otherwise”. As much as her Thomas Cromwell novels, this story dwells not only on high politics – or twisted history – but on existential risk and doubt. If we dodge one bullet, another may soon strike. But then the caged woman in the steaming, mouldy Jeddah flat, “condemned to see life skewed”, already understood all about that.Reuse content