LEARNING TO TALK: Stories, by Hilary Mantel
Hilary Mantel’s short story collection “Learning to Talk” was first published in Britain in 2003, before long-overdue prizes and international fame came her way. It shares the qualities of the contemporary novels she wrote for 20 years: sharp observation, alertness to the tomfooleries of class and gender, an uncanny capacity for the child’s-eye view, a door always open to the supernatural. And like Mantel’s most famous books, these stories are dark and absurd, the piping children’s voices brewed in wisdom and worldliness.
They are fictional stories. It says so on the back cover, and they have the structure and heft of the well-made short story. But they also weave around parts of Mantel’s memoir, “Giving Up the Ghost,” which is about writing and chronic illness and infertility but also about growing up in a divided, socially mobile family living in haunted houses in northwest England. These stories are also about that experience, their narrators children and teenagers at odds with their families, neighbors and schools, striving to decipher the unspoken, and often hindered more than helped by cleverness and curiosity.
We begin with echoes of Wordsworth and Thomas Hood, early prophets of the belief that the child is father to the man: “I cannot get out of my mind, now, the village where I was born, just out of the curl of the city’s tentacles. … But we did not like the Mancunians.” The narrator, Liam, and his mother do not much like anyone, not his vanished father nor their disturbed and disturbing next-door neighbors, not the teachers at school and certainly not the children who chant anti-Catholic songs at Liam. “Petrol ran in my veins; my fingers itched for triggers; post offices were fortified behind my eyes.” The Catholic child’s rage finds the form of the Troubles, which simmer misunderstood and half-acknowledged in the background of northern British cities.
Each story walks around, plays with, the unrecognized moment in which a child’s life course shifts: the killing of a pet dog, the experience of getting lost and finding oneself, the teenager’s realization that loving adults can be entirely wrong about what’s important, daughters recognizing their mothers’ lives beyond maternity. The crucial moments are historically exact. In the title story, the narrator looks back on years of elocution lessons, provided after moving from a village school to the engine of social mobility that was the English grammar school (academically elite secondary education provided free to anyone who could pass the entrance exam, though inevitably the exams favored the prosperous). In an exemplary use of the passive voice: “People thought I ought to be a lawyer. So I was sent to Miss Webster, to learn to talk properly.” Miss Webster has only one lung and her own accent is “precariously genteel, Manchester with icing.” The precision of the settings is part of the pleasure of reading these stories: The narrator “would trail home through the darkening streets, passing other wool shops with baby clothes in their windows, and the village delicatessen with its range of pale cold meats,” passing commuters “hurrying home to their thru’ lounges.” (A “lounge” is a still-declassé term for a sitting room, “thru” means that the wall once dividing it from the now-redundant dining room has been knocked down. England, lower-middle-class, postwar.)
In this more or less autobiographical time frame of the 1960s and 1970s, Mantel remains a historical novelist, which is to say one always thinking about how politics, trends and events shape character, one who knows in every sentence that the political is personal and vice versa, one who inhabits bodies shaped by the specificities of time and place. Part of her consistent brilliance lies in her attention to ghosts and mortgages, the light on the moors and 1980s educational policy, adolescent self-discovery and irregular accounting. These stories hold worlds as wide as those of her longest novels.
Sarah Moss’s latest novel is “The Fell.”
LEARNING TO TALK, by Hilary Mantel | 161 pp. | Henry Holt | $19.99