I picked up this book (greatly reduced in price) probably because I was intrigued by the title, and found when I started reading it that it consisted of eleven rather long short stories, set in various parts of the world, but mainly in contemporary England. Some years ago I read Mantel’s two books about Thomas Cromwell and Henry the Eighth, ‘Wolf Hall’ and ‘Bring up the Bodies,’ and I remember thinking at the time that they were not very well-written, though interesting. I was very surprised to learn that both (I think) won the Man-Booker Prize.

I find that in her short stories, too, Hilary Mantel’s style is as ragged, jagged and unclear as it was in her previous books. To cut a long story short (pun intended), I find her style irritating and confusing. What is worse, I find the subject-matter of her stories equally annoying. Some of them don’t seem to have much point or to go anywhere, which is hardly what a short story is supposed to achieve. In some cases they are vignettes of a certain time or place or situation, but in my view that is not enough for the medium of a short story.

One of the stories describes the author’s encounter with an Indian businessman when she is living in Jeddah, where her husband is working for an oil company. The author feels awkward about having to entertain the unwelcome guest for tea, and even attend a dinner party he has organised. But beyond the feeling of unease, and relief when she finally manages to shake him off, there doesn’t seem to be much point to the episode. Another story describes a childhood encounter with a girl from a less privileged socio-economic environment, but beyond that there is little to grab the reader’s interest. Yes, the children’s conversation is convincingly conveyed, as is the atmosphere of noseyness and latent aggression, but that is all. An account of the relationships between the staff of a doctor’s clinic reveals an unexpected lesbian alliance, and that perhaps is one of the better stories.

The story of the title is the last and longest in the book and describes what might perhaps have happened had the plumber whom the narrator had been expecting turned out to be an assassin bent on shooting Margaret Thatcher. The erstwhile prime minister, who is apparently universally hated, had been undergoing minor eye surgery in the suburban house next door which had been converted into a clinic. The encounter between the lady of the house and the assassin, who is a member of the IRA, is described in very low-key, almost casual, terms, with no-one getting particularly excited or upset about anything much. Detachedness is all. Of course, there is the period of waiting, with the conventional cup of tea, which winds up becoming something more alcoholic, but there are no accelerated heartbeats, sweating or swearing, and not even any raised voices. Everything proceeds with the utmost calm and, in a strange turn of events, the lady of the house even conspires with the would-be assassin to show him a secret escape route. Not very convincing, to say the least.

Several of the stories have previously been published in such august journals as ‘The London Review of Books’ and the ‘Guardian,’ which only leaves me wondering what has become of the British literary scene.