I have two confessions to make today. Firstly, I only started to read Hilary Mantel when “Wolf Hall” was published. I loved it and its portrayal of Thomas Cromwell, and was just as captivated by its sequel “Bring up the Bodies.” But I feel like a bit of a Hilary Mantel glory supporter. I must make amends, and read her back catalogue. My second confession is that I don’t often read short story collections, which this book is. I tend to like a story I can get my teeth stuck into, and feel short changed by short stories.
This is certainly a collection which reminds me of a box of chocolates. Some bites are extremely satisfying. In the wonderful “Harley Street” a young receptionist tells the story of the people she works alongside, including the nurse Mrs Bathurst who seems to be rather taken with Bettina the phlebotomist. There is also the extremely dark “Winter Break” the last paragraph of which has haunted me since I read it.
However a few of the stories fell a little flat. For me they would be the coffee creams of the selection. I wasn’t really grabbed by “Sorry To Disturb” which tells the story of a western woman living in Saudi Arabia with her husband, who starts to be pestered by a young man to whom she has shown kindness. “The Comma,” a story about two children spying on a house down their road in the heat of summer had echoes of “To kill a Mockingbird.” But left me a little confused by the ending (although maybe I’m just not that bright!)
But all the stories showcase Mantel’s poetic descriptions, and beautiful prose. One character wakes “in a cider-apple dawn, a fizz and sharpness in the air.” Another, after seeing the ghost of their father travelling on a train away from Clapham Junction, considers what makes us certain that the people around us are actually alive and not just apparitions. “Pick me what it is, in the timbre of the voice, that marks out the living from the dead.
Mantel captures the essence of each story so well in her writing, and in such a short amount of time. I felt empathy for the characters, intrigue, even in the stories that I didn’t enjoy as much.
As for the title story which gained so much press when the book was featured as a Radio 4 Book at Bedtime? It is an interesting concept. A women living in a flat which lies opposite the hospital that Margaret Thatcher is having an eye operation in, accidentally allows an IRA sniper into her home mistaking him for a boiler repair man. Again the writing is beautiful, although the substance seems to be lacking.
I definitely be dipping into this collection again, but in the same way I do in a box of celebrations, I will be targeting the galaxy caramels.