The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel

Title: The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher
Author: Hilary Mantel
Genre: Fiction / Short Stories
Source: Library
Rating: 3 out of 5

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When I put this book on my reading list, I did so because the only Hilary Mantel I’d read was Wolf Hall, which I’d found hard going. I’m not a huge fan of historical fiction which didn’t help but I’d heard though that Mantel’s other novels were completely different, funny and clever (I think the word acerbic was used by one reviewer). I didn’t want to take on a full novel straight away so thought this collection of short stories might be a good place to start. The title, which is also the name of the last of the short stories, sealed the deal for me because I grew up in Thatcher’s Britain and have never known a person to divide people more.

There are 10 stories in total, all of which, bar The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, have been published previously between 1993 and 2012. All of them are dark, claustrophobic, and not very cheery. I don’t think one had a happy ending (unless you happen to dislike Maggie that is). They range from the oppression of being a woman in 1980’s Saudi Arabia to childhood cruelty and infidelity. The language reflects this darkness and I can see shades of Wolf Hall in way the stories are written; there is a grittiness to it. The real focus seems to on what is going on inside each character. In each case, it’s not particularly pleasant. Mantel’s subjects (including herself as I believe the first story is autobiographical) are not in good places and they aren’t very likeable.

Us by David Nicholls

Title: Us
Author: David Nicholls
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Source: Library
Rating: 4 out of 5

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After almost 25 years of marriage, Douglas Peterson’s wife, Connie, tells him she’s thinking of leaving him. Not necessarily planning too, just thinking about it. She will, she tells him, make her decision after they return from their “grand tour”, a trip across Europe with their son Albie who will soon be heading off to college. Unsure what else to do, Douglas decides to use the trip to save his marriage – and rebuild his relationship with Albie, who would rather be Ibiza and barely acknowledges his fathers existence.

The trip starts badly, gets better, gets worse as Connie can’t seem to decide what she wants and what makes her happy. She and Albie both seem to hold Douglas with contempt and make fun at his expense. It’s hard to know their true feelings as the story is told by Douglas who is still very much in love with Connie. Still, I found it hard to warm to her or her son. In fact, I found them to be incredibly unfair to Douglas. Connie I felt had put them in a very awkward position and should be more understanding of Douglas’ desperate attempts to do the right thing. Albie I forgave because he was 17, full of teenage angst, and who would want to travel round Europe with warring parents?

J by Howard Jacobson

Title: J
Author: Howard Jacobson
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Rating: 4 out of 5

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Some time in the past, something happened, if it happened, that wasn’t good. No one is quite sure what it was, what caused it, and no one talks about it. Because of it, people’s surnames and place names changed so no one could be singled out and no one could be blamed; holding on to memories of the past and family heirlooms is discouraged; love songs and ballads are piped through entertainment systems. And everyone says sorry for everything, every slight or insult. All the saying sorry in the world though doesn’t seem to be able to stop the increased violence being seen everywhere. And it doesn’t seem to make anyone happy. No one in “J” is happy – or at least not happy for long.

This includes the two main characters, Kevern Cohen and Ailinn Solomons. Born and raised in Port Reuben, Kevern’s father secretly listened to jazz but put his fingers over his lips whenever he said a word starting with “J”, teaching Kevern to do the same, whilst his mother constantly warned his father to not say anything about anything. Kevern has never felt like he fits in or been accepted by the people of Port Reuben but he’s never sure why. Ailinn, recently arrived from a place “up north” is another outsider, orphaned and adopted by parents who didn’t love her. She feels she is constantly running from something. Then a stranger introduces the unlikely pair and they begin to fall in love.