This is the last of my investigations into writing short stories, and who better to study than double Booker winner Hilary Mantel? I’ve only read one Hilary Mantel book and it wasn’t Wolf Hall or Bringing Up the Bodies (they are on my ever increasing ‘to read’ list), but An Experiment in Love, which I loved. This collection of stories is incredibly varied in choice of subject – there’s the strange visitor to a woman living in Saudi Arabia in the 1980s, two stories about the fallout from affairs, told in very different ways, an odd childhood story, one of anorexia nervosa, a recurring theme in Mantel’s writing, a chilling one about a short break in Greece, and the eponymous assassin. Every story is so perfectly formed and made beautiful by the small details Mantel chooses to include. I found myself nodding, saying ah yes, with recognition of the things she notices. Its such a fantastic skill as a writer to be able to include fresh detail.
But the real skill of short story writing is being able to draw the reader into the life of a character within a couple of paragraphs and then to create a world in a few thousand words and deliver on the climax without wasting words. Manel is a master at showing enough detail to draw the reader in but still leaving enough question marks hanging to make you think about what the story and its characters meant after you’ve stopped reading.
Mantel has got a very sharp view of the world, which comes across as feeling not very kind at times, but I think that honesty really makes for a great writer. I’m still working on how to construct a decent short story, but I have to admit, its hard to focus on them when I’m consumed by my novel. It was only taking a six week break from novel writing over the summer that I had the mind space to write a couple of short stories, and then it felt like hard work because I was writing about characters that I wasn’t invested in. But reading this collection of really great stories, I do wonder if it might work better for me to draw on my own life experience to generate stories and then I’ll be more invested in them.
I’d highly recommend this collection for anyone looking for beautiful writing about a really broad range of characters and situations.