Little is for certain in these unnerving short-story collections by three of the most gifted writers in contemporary literature. Longtime marriages come undone, friendships fray, eyes and ears report impossible things. The only thing you can be sure of is that any unease these stories prompt is precisely what their authors intended.
The title story of Hilary Mantel's The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher" (Henry Holt, $27) raised an outcry in England when the Guardian published it online. But imagining the attempted murder of a controversial public figure who in real life is already dead hardly seems out of bounds, and Mantel's critics in the United Kingdom missed the most interesting aspect of her story: She evokes a shadowy region where boundaries blur and what might have happened has equal weight with what actually occurred. The fire door through which her narrator proposes to let the would-be assassin escape "is visible only to the eye of faith," Mantel writes. Yet, "note the power of the door in the wall that you never saw was there. ... History could always have been otherwise."
Despite the plethora of sharply observed social detail, her stories always recognize other potential realities. In "How Shall I Know You?" the grind of poorly attended library talks and chats with clueless book groups is juxtaposed with the pound notes that multiply in the author's purse and computer disks that "periodically erased themselves in the night." Wardrobes remove their own doors and post office boxes move about town in "Sorry to Disturb," a quietly scathing depiction of women's restricted lives in Saudi Arabia. It closes with a surreal image of "furniture ... frolicking in the dark." Even the most straightforward of Mantel's tales retain a faintly otherworldly air.
By contrast, Margaret Atwood's stories in "Stone Mattress" (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $25.95) are emphatically of this world, even when she's inventing a nastily plausible international movement against the elderly in "Torching the Dusties." Meanness is never a surprise to this tough-minded writer. "It's paltry. It's vicious. It's normal. It's what happens in life," Verna opines in the title story as she prepares, many decades after the fact, to murder the man who got her drunk and pregnant in high school.
Atwood's characters bitterly recall ancient grievances in three linked stories about betrayals and humiliations among the denizens of the Riverboat, a long-gone bohemian coffeehouse in Toronto. Jorrie, the sexy man-killer who stole the boyfriend of a woman named Constance in "Alphinland," now "looks like a sequined leather handbag" after the unwise application of too much metallic bronzer in preparation for the funeral, in "Dark Lady," of the man who dumped them both. Not that Gavin is doing so well in "Revenant"; he's mortified to discover that the grad student supposedly there to interview him about his poetry in fact wants to hear about Constance's fantasy series, mocked by the Riverboat crowd back in the '60s but now the subject of serious scholarly respect. As always, sardonic humor leavens Atwood's dark subject matter, and a few stories conclude (somewhat surprisingly) on a note of gruff tenderness.
The stories in Joyce Carol Oates' "Lovely, Dark, Deep" (Ecco, $25.99) range from the florid, Gothic tone of "The Hunter," about a woman oppressed by her dying father and a new lover, to the stark polyphony of "Things Passed on the Way to Oblivion," the painful saga of an illegitimate daughter desperate to please her dismissive adoptive family. Men are frequently unfaithful, domineering and elusive, while the wives in such stories as "The Disappearing" and "The Jesters" anxiously insist, "We are protected. We are very happy." But Oates' women are not as passive as they seem. In the title story, a young poet interviewing Robert Frost in the summer of 1951 soon drops her deferential manner to ask sharp questions about the crusty old man's mythologizing narrative of his own life. He stumbles down the porch steps as "the taunting girl-interviewer" vanishes: "He could not call for help, the shame was too deep."
"Life -- raw, grasping, blind" is a perennial challenge to Oates' characters, vulnerable as they're buffeted by the vagaries of fate and the whims of those they love. Even in the privileged enclaves where some of these stories take place, the working-class understanding conveyed in "Forked River Roadside Shrine, South Jersey" lurks under the surface: Our choices are limited, and we are subject to forces beyond our control.