I never thought I would want to connect the two words put together in my title, but this is what this well crafted collection of short stories offers.
Mantel perfectly understands the trajectory of the short story, and each one is excellently crafted. In fact, the collection as a whole is contained by the first story, Sorry To Disturb, hooking to the last, title story.
Sorry to Disturb is set in Saudia Arabia in 1983, the story of a British woman (a reflection of Mantel herself) having to come to terms with life in that society, where she and her husband are now living. It has some similarities to Mantel’s novel with a similar setting, Eight Months on Ghazzah Street. In this edgy, claustrophobic story, where all `outsiders’ struggle to exist within new norms, reference is made to the 1983 election which returned Thatcher to power:
“Thursday June 9th………..When we turned out the light, the grocer’s daughter jigged through my dreams to the strains of `Lillibulero’. Friday was a holiday, and we slept undisturbed till the noon prayer call. Ramadan began. Wednesday June 15th: Read The Twyborn Affair and vomited sporadically’.”
The end plate story posits the assassination, and the timing of this story, I noted, coincides with the narrator of the first story and her husband being back in the UK on leave.
Almost every story is dark, nastily funny, and with a lethal sting in its tail. And perhaps unusually, as I could not resist reading this straight through, I didn’t second guess the wraps, which managed to be both surprising and satisfying.
What does unite almost all of them however is a sense of spite and delight in the spite (and is responsible for the fact that though I liked the collection, very very much, I didn’t quite love it)
The ones which worked most effectively for me, however, had more of a sense of unease, danger and unpredictability about them, relative to the central characters. This was particularly the case in stories where the central characters were not properly in control, and were even `outsiders’ in different ways. – hence the despair and difficulty of that first story, Sorry to Disturb. This story, one of my favourites, links also to the fourth story, Winter Break, where a childless couple travel out of season to a rocky, mountainous un-named (probably North African or possibly Spanish) location. The link between the two stories is childlessness, and biological clocks. Winter Break , like Sorry To Disturb, is less filled with spite as a driver, and does have a shape and a journey which is compellingly managed,
I also very much liked `Comma’ where adults and children are outsiders to each other, and explores in that territory where the unrestrained, uncivil, could be feral nature of childhood, and the cultural restraints children are learning, meet. The central child in this story, again, a kind of `proto Mantel’
`guarded, eight years old, wearing too-small shorts of black-and-white-check that had fitted me last year;’
has a cross-class friendship with another child of more weird and vibrant vitality.
`Harley Street’ I found wonderfully funny, and it rather cocks a snook at a certain popular genre which is often a dreary repository for sloppy writing. Mantel manages her foray into the area with great style, despite making some very bad and obvious jokes. Or, indeed, because of making those bad and obvious jokes
Every story seems to start, and end, with a satisfying hook and a bang
Wholesome, it isn’t!
And I’m grateful to FictionFan for alerting me to this on her ‘currently reading’ queue, which sent me racing post haste to buy it. I’m afraid that though my newest download it leapfrogged everything else, courtesy of a weekend journey and the dreaded engineering works and Network Rail!