Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Garden of Fiction: A Killer Voice in 'The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher'

         It's hard to read a page of "The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher," or even just a sentence or two, without realizing you're in the hands of one of the best writers of English around and one of the most original minds we're likely to come across anywhere. Just writing well, with the peculiar verve and intensity writers of literary fiction call "voice" may not all by itself be enough to write a memorable book, but it is a necessity.           
            Mantel has it in spades without ever trying to be "showy," or different, or strange, or just magnificently perceptive. All these qualities, and all the others you want to be there, appear in her writing, but just appear to show up naturally. In the opening story, realistic fiction about social conditions in grand tradition of English fiction, Mantel gives us an encounter between Indian servants in the UK rendered in spot-on UK-Indian English. We might wish the wealthy dysfunctional English family our female servant has recently escaped from were less predictably selfish, self-absorbed and lacking in humanity; or that the servant doesn't become victim to both their oppression and their abuse. But there you have it: the way things are. And here matters are narrated with the minute particulars and a nasty, revealing twist or two to set the tale apart from others of its kind. 
          In Saudi Arabia things are no better, but the victimhood is simply shared by all the female members of a rich, privileged class, both native and international, who are sentenced to doing nothing. Her treatment of childhood in the story called "Comma" is strange and compelling. The adults in the tale are no more important than an arrangement of stuffed chairs, but childhood at a certain point can feel like that, can't it? When you really dig into things, the way all the "voices" in all these tales can't help doing, nothing really is 'ordinary' or 'normal,' is it? 
          Certainly not the day spent indoors by what appears to be a respectable, comfortable English woman of a certain age, whose bedroom window just happens to offer the perfect angle for a rifle shot at the English P.M., emerging from a hospital across the way. Mantel is the author of "Wolf Hall," probably the most extraordinary piece of fiction produced this century. Yet, as these stories show, you don't have to serve the gigantic ego of an absolute monarch, or desire to spill the blood of a noxious contemporary pol, to be a subject of interest. 
          All you need is a pulse, a heart, something to think with, and the desire to survive even accidental encounters with your fellow creatures.