May I start by saying I kind of broke a personal record of the longest-standing draft of a post here? I finished the book in… ahem, July, and I dutifully wrote a beginning of a post back then… and, well, I don’t really know what happened next. Life, I suppose.
It’s not to say that I didn’t like the book. In fact, some stories are so memorable that I have no difficulty to remember them now, a mere… well, five months later. In fact, I chose one to send to Danielle as part of our short story exchange. As she posted about it today, I have no excuse left not to write about this collection now, right?
I had never read anything else by Hilary Mantel but Wolf Hall. Stupidly (yes) I thought she was into historical fiction. So you can guess that I took this collection of short stories with the wrong foot. None of these stories are historical fiction, except perhaps if 1983 Thatcher is to be considered fictional history. Marriage stories, family stories, with a hint of horror or supernatural. The stories are rather bleak and dark and there’s nothing Tudor about them for sure.
Actually, maybe the wrong foot was just the one I needed for that collection, because if there is one common feeling throughout, it’s definitely one of uneasiness. The sense of uneasiness that comes with being an expat wife in a totally foreign culture such as Saudi Arabia, not knowing how to behave and if any gesture or word can be misunderstood to create embarrassment and problems (“Sorry to disturb”). The sense of uneasiness that comes with being asked as a writer to give a speech in the most bizarre literary association (the very British female narrator keeps apologizing and the story, called “How Shall I Know You?” has superb wit). The sense of uneasiness when kids are making fun of neighbors in a most cruel way, because they don’t know better (“Comma”).
I know that British readers must have taken the title story as the most scandalous, and therefore memorable story in the book, but I was too little when Thatcher was leading the country and I didn’t really react much to this story. To me the most memorable, if disturbing read was “The Heart Fails Without Warning”, a story of a young anorexic girl as seen by her younger sister. The family dynamics and the voice of the narrating girl (who sees more clearly than others the problems, but still seems unsympathetic and quite a brat) were deftly portrayed.
I haven’t read the rest of the Cromwell trilogy (the page number frightens me), but these short stories reminded me of Hilary Mantel’s great style and I know I need to read more of her!