The furore raised by the title story in this collection was perhaps fuelled by the expectation that, after two Booker prizes, Mantel is now firmly of the establishment and should show respect to the similarly empowered
But much of Mantel’s glorious power comes from her unsentimental, forensic gaze and willingness to describe the uncomfortable, whether it’s dysfunctional friendship and pushy mothers in An Experiment in Love, acidic observations about the Duchess of Cambridge, or uncompromising descriptions of Tudor life in Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies.
Mantel’s brutally dissecting eye is much in evidence here. A “vast lumpen elder ... with a long chomping jaw ... like Quentin Matsyr’s Ugly Duchess”; “some oily skivvy”; “scrawny tanned arms”; “pneumatic and brain-dead”; a “steeple-headed” child. Just as obvious is Mantel’s fascination with the shadow world, seen previously in Beyond Black. Rational explanations are eschewed for ghostly ones – furniture is most likely rearranged by a sleepwalker – but the threatening atmosphere in Mantel’s world suggests more sinister forces at work.
In “Sorry to Disturb”, a memoir piece, Mantel vividly portrays the oppressive suffocation of life in Jeddah for a Western woman. Her prose is sublime, the menacing atmosphere evoked early on, with “the light that dappled the tiled walls with swinging shadows”, and doors of “dark wood, heavy like coffin lids”. In “Comma”, the cruelty of children is captured, as two girls spy on a house, hoping to catch a glimpse of a disfigured child. “The Long QT” is a cautionary tale about adultery, the glittering details exquisite: “A tiny chime hung in the air, as the glasses shivered in her fingers.”
Things turn even more gruesome in “Winter Break”, where a couple’s holiday gets off to a horrifying start.
Sometimes the ending doesn’t live up to the suspense that has been built up. In “Harley Street”, the “geraniums so scarlet, as if the earth had bled through the pavement” seem to foreshadow a dramatic ending, so the denouement is anti-climatic. And “How Shall I Know You” is so deliciously evocative, with its dire B&B and members of a literary society bearing terrible manuscripts to foist on to the visiting author, that the ending seems forced, straining for unrequired symmetry.
It’s a safe guess that those who made the most fuss about the title story have not read it. When thought and imagination become crimes, we can say goodbye to quietly controversial, supremely talented writers such as Mantel.
Which really would be a crime.