New York Times Thrilled By 'The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher' Story

October 8th, 2014 7:13 AM

It’s easily guessed that no one at The New York Times would welcome a book titled “The Assassination of Barack Obama.” But the Times is in love with a book titled “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher.”

This book of short stories by British author Hilary Mantel graced the cover of Sunday’s book review, but mysteriously, that review by Terry Castle didn’t discuss the short story on killing Thatcher while she was Britain's prime minister until the penultimate paragraph. That’s because I missed the Gray Lady’s other celebrations of Mantel’s Maggie-murder tale.

On September 25, Times book reviewer Janet Maslin found that story was the “piece de resistance” of the collection:

Finally, the pièce de résistance. “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher” allows Ms. Mantel to transform a convenient coincidence in her own life into an opportunistic political fantasy. Ms. Mantel lived in Windsor, England, when Thatcher had eye surgery at a hospital there, and Ms. Mantel’s window had an unobstructed view of the hospital entrance. Thus a simple, murderous “What if?” from the author becomes a work of displaced animosity connecting an innocent woman minding her own business at home with a wish-fulfilling assassin for the Irish Republican Army. Arriving in the guise of a plumber sent to fix the woman’s boiler, the assassin commandeers her apartment and makes her his prisoner.

Not that the woman minds this one bit. She hates Thatcher as much as the assassin does, and they engage in a spirited dialogue about whether Irish ancestry counts as serious political commitment or if that’s just malarkey. (“I don’t care about the songs your great-uncles used to sing on a Saturday night,” he tells her.) The story is set in 1983, and Ms. Mantel has said it took her a long time to get it to a full boil — which it has certainly reached, if the early reaction of Thatcherite British politicians is any indication.

Regardless, the woman in the apartment pulls no punches about her complete sympathy for the assassin and her own hatred for Thatcher. “She sleeps four hours a day,” she says. “She lives on the fumes of whiskey and the iron in the blood of her prey.” Perhaps she is having the eye operation because she is incapable of producing natural tears.

Because these stories lack the absolute toughness of the Cromwell books, and because they rely on a spiritual dimension that amounts to a narrative escape hatch, Ms. Mantel includes a passage about why events that might have changed history, like the assassination of Margaret Thatcher, exist in a netherworld where they either did or didn’t happen. “History could always have been otherwise,” she writes. Long story short: Ms. Mantel can’t kill off Margaret Thatcher. But it is not a matter of bloodthirstiness to wish Ms. Mantel were as firm here as she is in her best books, which require no dodging for their historical narratives, and which so brilliantly amplify what is already known.

But what really proves the ardor of the Times came in the Book Review on Sunday, September 28: they published the entire short story, all 6,137 words of it, with its actual longer title: “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: August 6th 1983" (which would have been four years into her tenure, which lasted until 1990).In addition to the lines already quoted by Maslin there were these:

“They call her the widowmaker. Though not in this case. Poor bloody Dennis, eh? He'll have to boil his own eggs from now on.'' So said the assassin about his gun. There’s something slightly amusing that neither the author nor the Times wants to ruin this by noting the accurate spelling is “Denis.”

Then the not-really-abducted lady complained:

I said, ''It's the fake femininity I can't stand, and the counterfeit voice. The way she boasts about her dad the grocer and what he taught her, but you know she would change it all if she could, and be born to rich people. It's the way she loves the rich, the way she worships them. It's her philistinism, her ignorance, and the way she revels in her ignorance. It's her lack of pity. Why does she need an eye operation? Is it because she can't cry?''

And on the treatment of Irish nationalists who died on hunger strikes like Bobby Sands, the lady announced:

'But you know another thing? They may have been blind at the end, but their eyes were open when they went into it. You can't force pity from a government like hers. Why would she negotiate? Why would you expect it? What's a dozen Irishmen to them? What's a hundred? All those people, they're capital punishers. They pretend to be modern, but leave them to themselves and they'd gouge eyes out in the public squares.''

At the end of the story, when Thatcher is shot, the assassin speaks for the author: “'Rejoice,”' he says. “Fucking rejoice.”'

In this Sunday’s Book Review, the critic Terry Castle oozed, “Mantel is such a funny and intelligent and generously untethered writer that part of what one's praise must mean is that if you're intelligent and quirky enough to take the book up at all -- and anyone reading to this point most likely will be -- she's got quirks enough of her own to match you, if not raise you 10.”

Earlier: Clay Waters on how The New York Times marked Thatcher's actual death in 2013 as "deeply polarizing," focused on "losers in the Thatcher revolution."