Book Review: “Learning to Talk,” by Hilary Mantel

LEARN TO SPEAK: Stories, by Hilary Mantel


Hilary Mantel’s collection of short stories, ‘Learning to Talk’, was first published in Britain in 2003, before long-awaited awards and international fame came her way. It shares the qualities of the contemporary novels she wrote for 20 years: sharp observation, attention to class and gender antics, astonishing capacity for the child’s gaze, door always open to the supernatural. And like Mantel’s most famous books, these stories are dark and absurd, the hissing voices of children brewed with wisdom and worldliness.

These are fictional stories. It says on the back cover, and they have the structure and weight of the well-made news. But they also weave in parts of Mantel’s memoir, “Giving Up the Ghost,” which deals with writing, chronic illness and infertility, but also growing up in a divided, socially mobile family living in haunted houses. from the North West of England. These stories are also about that experience, their child and adolescent narrators at odds with their families, neighbors and schools, struggling to decipher the unsaid, and often hampered more than helped by ingenuity and curiosity.

We begin with echoes of Wordsworth and Thomas Hood, early prophets of the belief that the child is the father of man: tentacles. … But we didn’t like the Mancunians. The narrator, Liam, and his mother don’t like anyone, neither his missing father nor their disturbed and disturbing next-door neighbors, nor the teachers at school and certainly not the children who sing anti-Catholic songs to Liam. “Essence flowed through my veins; my fingers itched for triggers; the post offices were fortified behind my eyes. The rage of the Catholic child finds form in the unrest, which simmers misunderstood and half-acknowledged in the background of the cities of northern Britain.

Each story wanders around, plays with, the little-known moment in which the course of a child’s life changes: the murder of a pet dog, the experience of getting lost and found, the realization by the teenager that loving adults can be completely wrong about what’s important, daughters recognize their mothers’ lives beyond motherhood. The pivotal moments are historically accurate. In the title story, the narrator looks back on years of elocution lessons, given after moving from a village school to the motor of social mobility that was the English high school (elite secondary education provided free to all person who could pass the entrance exam, though inevitably the exams favored the more prosperous). In exemplary use of the passive voice: “People thought I should be a lawyer. So I was sent to Miss Webster, to learn how to speak properly. Miss Webster has only one lung and her own accent is “precariously distinguished, Manchester with icing”. The precision of the decorations contributes to the pleasure of reading these stories: the narrator “returned home through the darkening streets, passing other woolen shops with baby clothes in their windows, and the village charcuterie with its range of pale deli meats”. passing commuters “hurry home to their living rooms”. (A “living room” is a still downgraded term for a living room, “through” means that the wall that once separated it from the now redundant dining room has been knocked down. England, lower middle class, post-war.)

In this more or less autobiographical period of the 1960s and 1970s, Mantel remains a historical novelist, that is to say a novelist who always reflects on how politics, trends and events shape the character, who knows in every sentence that the political is personal and vice versa. versa, the one who inhabits bodies shaped by the specificities of time and place. Part of his constant brilliance lies in his attention to ghosts and mortgages, light on the moors and Educational policy of the 1980s, adolescent self-discovery and irregular accounting. These stories contain worlds as vast as those of his longest novels.


Sarah Moss’ latest novel is “The Fell”.


LEARN TO SPEAK, by Hilary Mantel | 161 pages | Henry Holt | $19.99

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