It annoys me when I don’t like something but don’t know why. In the case of this short story collection by Hillary Mantel, I can’t come up with much of anything to complain about, but I also don’t have much to praise. I suppose that’s what people mean when they say a book was a meh read.
But meh doesn’t seem quite right. I liked some of the stories quite a bit. In fact, I liked some of them enough that I wanted more. Maybe that’s the problem. Maybe the short story from wasn’t enough for these stories, so they felt incomplete, like there was more story to tell.
That wasn’t the case with the opening story, “Sorry to Disturb,” which involves an English woman in Saudi Arabia entertaining an unwanted guest again and again. It plays with expectations of gender and culture and how those expectations make it difficult to say what we really want to say.
The antepenultimate story “The Heart Fails Without Warning” is another nearly complete gem. In it, a girl watches her older sister starving herself to death as her family tries to decide what to do. In the story, anorexia is about disappearing, wasting away, and becoming less than human, dying. Another image that turns up shows women on leashes. The sisters are unsettled by this image, yet it seems related to what the older sister is doing to herself. Is she trying to waste away to avoid being used? Or does she feel a kinship with the leashed woman, both of them reigning in their bodies? There’s enough in the story to dig into, and the elision of plot near the end left me wondering if she got what she wanted.
The title story has gotten a lot of attention for its sensationalistic premise, and I enjoyed it well enough, but I didn’t find much meat there. A woman is tricked into letting an assassin into her flat, which is perfectly positioned to get a clear view of Margaret Thatcher as she leaves the hospital after an eye surgery. The woman converses with the assassin and finds herself sympathizing with him and even helping him. There’s not much more to it than that. There’s no massive drama, just the internal murmurings of the narrator trying to figure herself out as she deals with the situation. Maybe that’s the point; that the big choices don’t always involve a big noise. I don’t know. The story just felt like not much to me.
Many of the stories featured people learning something or seeing something they shouldn’t (or don’t want to). A daughter knows about her father’s affair, a wife happens upon her husband kissing another woman, a man learns something he didn’t anticipate about his coworkers, a couple witness a crime. One of them has vampires, but I’m apparently not clever enough to have figured that out, so maybe I’m the problem when it comes to this book. Mantel’s writing at the word and sentence level is excellent, as I’d expect, but I’m given no particular reason to care about these people or their situations. A couple of the stories end in twists that sent pleasant chills down my spine, but until those twists, I found them kind of dull.
I received a copy of this book for review consideration through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.