The story “How Shall I Know You?” speaks directly to my fears. An author is persuaded to speak to a book group outside of London and it is a loathsome destination: her lodging “was not precisely as the photograph had suggested. Set back from the road, it seemed to grow out of a parking lot, a jumble of vehicles double-parked and crowding to the edge of the sidewalk.” The place had a “travelers’ stench…tar of ten thousand cigarettes, fat of ten thousand breakfasts, the leaking metal seep of a thousand saving cuts” recalling her struggle with a biography about a man who accidentally cut his throat while shaving. The author recalls an earlier, presumably more luxurious accommodation:
”In Madrid, by contrast, my publishers had put me in a hotel suite that consisted of four small dark paneled rooms. They had sent me an opulent, unwieldy, scented bouquet, great wheels of flowers with woody stems. The concierge brought me heavy vases of a grayish glass, slippery in my hands, and I edged them freighted with blooms onto every polished surface; I stumbled from room to room, coffinned against the brown paneling, forlorn, strange, under a pall of pollen, like a person trying to break out of her own funeral.”The story speaks to my fears because I am struck with terror when someone suggests actually meeting an author, or asking them a question. What on earth could I possibly ask? Haven't they already told us what they wanted to say? Good lord, and what, have those x-ray eyes turn in my direction, to withstand that funny, devastating, vampiric wit?
This is a slim collection, beautifully printed with vast spacing and acres of white. There is room for your mind to wander to what she might have said but did not. Mantel uses words in a way that have no precedent. Her vision is unique. Mantel doesn’t need as many words as others often do to convey her devilish vision. You would have thought, if you’d tried to read her award-winning novels about Thomas Cromwell, that she could not write only a little, but you’d be wrong. She can, and she does, here. These are perfect little gems that speak to her (and our) deepest fears, the deepest held secrets of the heart.
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