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Learning to Talk: Stories

Review

Learning to Talk: Stories

Readers who associate Hilary Mantel with doorstop books like the three volumes that compose her monumental Wolf Hall trilogy are likely to be surprised when they encounter LEARNING TO TALK, her short story collection published in Britain in 2003 and now available for the first time in America. In just under 160 pages, Mantel offers seven incisive, observant glimpses of aspects of her characters’ early lives in the north of England that display her talent in the shorter form.

In a brief preface to the collection, Mantel observes that all of the tales “arose out of questions I asked myself about my early years,” ones she spent in a village on the edge of the Peak District in Derbyshire, which provided the setting for her novel, FLUDD. Rather than autobiographical, the word she uses to describe them is “autoscopic,” an unusual term that refers to “psychic illusory visual experiences consisting of the perception of the image of one's own body or face within space, either from an internal point of view, as in a mirror or from an external point of view.”

"In just under 160 pages, Mantel offers seven incisive, observant glimpses of aspects of her characters’ early lives in the north of England that display her talent in the shorter form."

Notwithstanding that characterization, Mantel concedes that at least one story, “Third Floor Rising,” “may fairly be described as memoir.” In it, she describes the summer of her 18th birthday, when she worked at a shabby Manchester department store where her mother managed one of the departments, before heading off for university in London. With biting wit, she describes her forlorn sales colleagues who “didn’t work on commission, so they never sold anything if they could help it.” Instead, their “rheumy malice drove customers back to the escalators and down into the street.” The endless summer days there are so depressing that Mantel diverts herself by investigating and uncovering a longstanding dubious practice used to balance inventory at the end of a day. It’s a vivid picture of pure workplace misery that would be right at home in a Dickens novel.

The collection’s title story is another one that displays Mantel’s sardonic humor. The northern English teenage narrator of that tale receives elocution lessons from a Miss Webster, whose “accent was precariously genteel, Mancunian with icing,” in a vain effort to acquire the “Received Pronunciation” with a “distinct southern ring.” In order to pass the final exam, students are called upon to recite a passage of Shakespeare, but their tutor was a woman who “must have learned to play Lady Macbeth by some theatrical equivalent of painting by numbers,” and the exam itself becomes a moment of mock drama.

Several of the other stories, like “King Billy Is a Gentleman,” where a father suddenly abandons his family, “taking his albums and his tweed overcoat and leaving all his underwear,” explore aspects of family life that best can be described as unconventional. In “Giving Up the Ghost,” which concludes the collection and shares its title with Mantel’s 2003 memoir, the narrator describes how at age seven her mother’s lover Jack moved into the family’s home, simultaneously occupied by her father, fracturing the family and exposing it to opprobrium in the local community. That story also features a beautiful passage of Mantel’s descriptive writing:

“What happens now? We are talked about in the street. Some rules have been broken. A darkness closes about our house. The air becomes jaundiced and clotted, and hangs in gaseous clouds over the rooms. I see them so thickly that I think I am going to bump my head on them.”

In the preface to LEARNING TO TALK, Mantel admits that these stories “were pulled together over a period of many years,” and she chose “that strenuous verb because for me the process of short fiction is full of tension and resistance.” For all the pleasure the tales in this volume provide, one can only hope that more of them will emerge soon with a little more ease.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on July 1, 2022

Learning to Talk: Stories
by Hilary Mantel

  • Publication Date: June 21, 2022
  • Genres: Fiction, Short Stories
  • Hardcover: 176 pages
  • Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.
  • ISBN-10: 1250865360
  • ISBN-13: 9781250865366