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

Learn to Speak: Stories, by Hilary Mantell


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 its way. She shares the traits of the contemporary novels she’s written for 20 years: the keen observation, the attentiveness to the acts of class and sex, the uncanny ability to see with a child’s eye, and the door always open to the supernatural. Like Mantel’s most famous books, these stories are dark and absurd, and children’s spirited voices permeate with wisdom and an earthly spirit.

They are fictional stories. It says that on the back cover, and they have the structure and weight of a well-made short. But they also weave around parts of Mantel’s memoir, “Giving Up the Ghost,” which is about writing, chronic illness and infertility but also about growing up in a socially divided family living in haunted houses in northwest England. These stories also revolve around that experience, children and adolescent narrators at odds with their families, neighbors, and schools, striving to decipher the unspoken, often more hampered by intelligence and curiosity than helping them.

We begin with echoes of Wordsworth and Thomas Hood, the first prophets to believe that a child is a man’s father: “I can’t get out of my mind now, the village in which I was born, so far from the heart of the city claws. … but we did not like the Manconians.” The narrator, Liam, and his mother don’t like anyone very much, neither his deceased father nor their restless and annoying neighbors, nor the teachers at school and certainly not the children who chant Liam’s anti-Catholic songs. “Gasoline was running through my veins; my fingers itch to the stimuli. Post offices were barricaded behind my eyes.” The wrath of a Catholic child finds the form of unrest, misunderstood and half-acknowledged in the background of the cities of northern Britain.

Each story wanders and plays with the unacknowledged moment in which a child’s life changes course: the murder of a pet dog, the experience of loss and self-finding, and a teen’s realization that adult love can be totally wrong about what is important, as girls acknowledge their mother’s life after birth. The decisive moments are historically accurate. In the title story, the narrator looks back at years of speaking lessons, given after moving from a village school to the drive for social mobility that was an English grammar school (an elite academic secondary education offered free to anyone who could pass the entrance exam, though exams inevitably were in favor of the wealthy). In my typical use of the passive voice: “People thought I should be a lawyer. So I was sent to Miss Webster, to learn to speak properly.” Miss Webster has one lung and her own dialect is “precariously fluffy, Manchester with ice”. The subtlety of the settings is part of the fun of reading these stories: The narrator was walking his way home through the dark streets, passing other wool shops with children’s clothes in their windows, the village’s canned foods with the lackluster deli collection, the “passengers crossing” faster from home to their lounges than through.” (“Lounge” is a still declassified term for the sitting room, and “through” means that the wall that separated it from the now redundant dining room was demolished. Lower-middle-class, post-war England.)

In this somewhat biographical time frame of the 1960s and 1970s, Mantell remains a historical novelist, meaning that one is always thinking about how politics, trends, and events have shaped a character, a person who knows in every sentence that a politician is a personal matter and vice. On the contrary, a person inhabits bodies shaped by the peculiarities of time and space. Part of her continued brilliance lies in her interest in ghosts And the Mortgages, swamp light And the 1980s Educational policy and adolescent self-discovery And the irregular accounting. These stories are as wide as their longer novels.


Sarah Moss’ latest novel is “The Fell”.


learn to speak, by Hilary Mantell | 161 p. | Henry Holt | $19.99

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