Writing a short story is hard work. In a limited amount of space enough character development must be had in order for the reader to care about the goings on. Putting together a collection is even harder. I wasn’t thrilled with Jean Thompson’s collection that I read a couple of weeks ago, but one strength it did have was purpose. Each story was a retelling of a fairytale, a narrative that was then updated or subverted, and for that reason it worked as a collection. This is also perhaps why, amongst some other reasons, Mantel’s book doesn’t soar. Each story, there are ten in total, was previously published elsewhere and they were all written at various points in the author’s career and life (there are as many as 19 years between the publications of some of them). Thematically, they have no commonalities. All but two are narrated in the first person, which can grow confusing as there isn’t much of a difference between the voices of each protagonist – leading the reader to blur the line between narrator and author. Though it is true that the circumstances and names change from one story to another, the language is not really altered. More than a couple of the tales feature a female author/writer as the protagonist. It is true that most works are drawn from their creator’s life, at least to some extent, but here it does appear that Mantel has a hard time crafting stories and using her imagination – which is a shame for such a prolific and otherwise successful historical novelist (she has won two Man Booker Prizes – only the fourth person to ever accomplish this feat). Perhaps, that is also the issue: all these stories are quite contemporary. There is also an issue with entitlement and privilege that was quite bothersome to read. One could say that the narrators and characters, even when not wealthy, always behaved in too posh a manner. There was always someone to look down upon or feel superior to. The language is unnecessarily fussy at times, sometimes impeding the story. Twists also seem to be a crutch Mantel employs to end stories, rather than bringing them to a more satisfying or appropriate conclusion (two stories end with a sudden heart failure).
Are there any good narratives in this collection? Maybe. The opening story is perhaps its strongest. Aside from the xenophobia and slight racism that permeates it, “Sorry to Disturb” allows the reader to feel for its protagonist: a woman who is living in Saudi Arabia due to her husband’s position, and finds herself imprisoned in her cockroach infested apartment longing for human connection and friendship. The descent into an eventual acceptance of the gender roles of the host country is both tragic and infuriating. “The Heart Fails Without Warning” is a very sad story of a young girl consumed by her anorexia, amplified perhaps even more by her younger sister’s seemingly uncaring attitude towards her.
Overall, though, this is not much of a collection and it doesn’t feature a level of work that is really all that impressive. For better examples on how to deliver the art of a short stories, then it would be better to look in the direction of authors such as Jhumpa Lahiri, Alice Munro, and Michel Faber.