Best known for historical novels such as Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring up the Bodies (2012), Mantel proves herself a skilled practitioner of short fiction as well.
“In those days, the doorbell didn’t ring often, and if it did I would draw back into the body of the house.” So opens the first story in Mantel’s slender collection. Like the title story, and indeed like several others, it has a certain claustrophobic, reticent feel to it, its protagonist a retiring type thrust into discomfort by the larger events at play in the street outside. All of the pieces are worthy of our attention, but the title story is a true tour de force: A house-proud suburbanite has a kitchen window that opens onto a view of a hospital where Margaret Thatcher, in 1983, has had eye surgery, and it is that kitchen window that an IRA sniper wishes to use in order to do the Iron Lady in. Or perhaps not the IRA; remarks the householder, “It crossed my mind then he might not be a Provisional, but from one of the mad splinter groups you heard of.” Can she dissuade the shooter? Will she come to take his view that it’s no crime to slay the killer of so many innocents? All will be revealed—but after a nice cup of tea, mind you. Mantel blows up very thin balloons by way of situations and then takes a needle to them: Another story concerns a case of misread intentions in an expat cloister in Saudi Arabia, one of its players described thus: “spiritless, freckled, limp, she was a faded redhead who seemed huddled into herself, unused to conversation.” You just know that great things aren’t going to come from her, and certainly not the history-changing murder of a world leader, just as most of Mantel’s characters are retiring, confused people without much of a clue but who muddle on all the same.
“What would Anita Brookner do?” asks one of Mantel’s protagonists. The answer, we’d like to think, is this: She’d read Mantel’s latest, and she’d delight in it.