Longtime readers of Hilary Mantel’s savvy comedies about English prejudice and superstition might well have been surprised when, in 2009, Mantel published Wolf Hall, a large novel about the 16th-century statesman Thomas Cromwell. But after the arrival of another Cromwell book, Bring Up the Bodies, which repeated its predecessor’s Booker Prize victory, there seemed little doubt that her next would be a third Cromwell novel, apparently called The Mirror and the Light (though Bring Up the Bodies had also possessed that working title). Instead, it was announced that Mantel would be bringing out what The Bookseller called a “collection of contemporary short stories.” A statement from her publisher—“Where her last two novels explore how modern England was forged, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher shows us the country we have become”—promised a themed collection. It also exacerbated the imbalance at the heart of Mantel’s reputation, suggesting that a powerful historical investigator was turning her gaze on the present. But the new collection of stories is in reality more typical of Mantel’s writing over three decades—sly and sinister, eager to amuse and unnerve—than the pair of books that have won her global fame.
If the collection provides a stage, albeit crabbed and over-lit, for the “other Mantel,” it is also a backward-looking, stock-taking enterprise, with allusions to earlier moments in her career: Mantel before Cromwell. “Sorry to Disturb,” originally published as a work of memoir, recalls her beginnings as a writer—not her first writing project, the vast novel about the French Revolution that initially earned her nothing except rejection letters, but the first time she got a letter saying, basically, “Yes, please.”
It is 1983, and the narrator—Mantel, but unnamed—is living in Jeddah with her husband, a geologist on assignment to Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Mineral Resources. One day, a distraught-looking man in his 30s, Asian but not from Saudi Arabia, and named Ijaz, knocks on the door, asking to use the phone. She lets him in. They talk. He leaves. Then he comes again. Things become awkward, strained. During a trip back to London, she leaves a manuscript with an agent. On her return, she mentions the book to Ijaz, telling him, “An agent has taken it on.” He suggests that her husband will pay to have it published. She mentions the agent again. He asks where the agent is based. “I pressed on, trying to make my case; though why did I think that an office in William IV Street was a guarantee of moral worth?” Later, she receives a letter from William IV Street, “to tell me my novel had been sold.”
Living in Saudi Arabia, where education for women “was regarded as a luxury, an ornament, a way for a husband to boast of his broadmindedness,” Mantel saw William IV Street as a reminder of another world, at the very least a promise of moral worth, because it held out hope of a career. The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher is dedicated “To Bill Hamilton, the man in William IV Street: thirty years on, with gratitude,” and there are stories here that replay Mantel’s struggles toward success. In “How Shall I Know You?” a writer—not quite Mantel, the writer’s back catalog tells us—visits an obscure literary society, and finds the organizer and the society’s members difficult to like. Mantel is utterly unafraid of seeming tart when writing from what the reader might believe is her own perspective. In “Sorry to Disturb,” where the perspective is unquestionably her own, she writes: “An older woman confided that her two were adopted; I looked at them and thought Jesus, where from, the zoo?” Besides providing these glimpses of Mantel—some direct, others oblique—the book is primarily concerned with rounding up scattered bits of earlier work. One story, “Harley Street,” dates from 1993.