Given recent events, the title of Anthony Cartwright’s third novel, How I Killed Margaret Thatcher, is either unfortunate or a macabre stroke of marketing good luck. Described by the Telegraph as a “nasty little book”, it actually has less to do with Thatcher’s death, vividly fantasised about by the child protagonist, than about the death of the community he has grown up in and that she is systematically destroying.
Cartwright covers similar territory to Maggie and Me, the memoir by Damian Barr about growing up gay and working class in Scotland that came out shortly before the death of the former leader. Like Barr, Cartwright quotes her at the start of every chapter, which serves to put her policies, many of them adopted by both parties in Government since, in chilling context as we watch each one take effect.
Whereas Barr is reluctantly fascinated with Thatcher, Cartwright’s nine-year-old narrator Sean, seeing his community devastated by her policies, wants to stop her at any cost. Sean’s revolutionary fervour, though grisly, is less about the destruction of Thatcher the person than it is about the working class joining forces and wresting control of power. His imaginings veer from the medieval to the police state and his optimism, though violent, is heartbreaking in its lack of pragmatism.
“We could take her head around the country on a spike on the back of a van so people can see that she’s really dead… Maybe we’ll handle it really carefully and she’ll be shot somewhere in a prison yard early in the morning.”
Sean fails, of course, and the novel ends before time finishes the job he started with Sean reluctantly, confusingly, having joined the middle classes, although even that no longer means what it used to. Despite the controversial title, this is less a study of revenge than it is a meditation on how powerless the community is to change anything. Whilst the narrator harbours murderous fantasies that eventually coalesce into a plan, when he travels down to the 1984 Conservative Party conference in Brighton anyone familiar with the events of that week knows that his is not the only attempt on the Prime Minister’s life that will fail.
Cartwright deftly handles the tricky balance between mourning the demise of his community and not romanticising poverty. It is, after all, better to be part of a society that is being demolished than not to believe in one at all. In a novel full of characters drawn with painful realism, Cartwright is at his best in his depiction of a woman we see only once but who dominates the novel: bloodless and bland, loathing bubbling beneath a smooth, smiling surface. She might be in power, in London, invulnerable, but she is still “counting … coppers in [her] mean and drafty grocer’s shop, looking across the flat Lincolnshire land towards the hills and hating us.”