Book Review: “Learning to Speak” by Hilary Mantel

LEARNING 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 to it. She shares the qualities of the contemporary novels she wrote for 20 years: keen observation, alert to the antics of class and gender, an uncanny capacity for childish eyesight, an ever-open door to the supernatural. And like Mantel’s most famous books, these stories are dark and absurd, the children’s reedy voices crafted with wisdom and worldliness.

They are fictional stories. He says so on the back cover, and they have the structure and weight of a story well done. But they also intertwine parts of Mantel’s memories, “give up the ghost”, which is about writing and chronic illness and infertility, but also about growing up in a divided and socially mobile family living in haunted houses in the North West of England. These stories are also about that experience, their narrators, children and adolescents at odds with their families, neighbors and schools, struggling to decipher the unsaid, often hindered more than helped by cunning and curiosity.

We begin with echoes of Wordsworth and Thomas Hood, early prophets of the belief that the child is the father of the man: “I can’t get out of my mind, now, the town where I was born, just outside the loop of the city. tentacles… But we didn’t like the Mancunians.” The narrator, Liam, and his mother don’t care much for anyone, not his missing father, not his disturbed and disturbing next-door neighbors, not the teachers at school, and certainly not the children who sing anti-Catholic songs to him. to Liam. “Gasoline ran through my veins; my fingers itched from the triggers; Post offices were fortified behind my eyes.” The anger of the Catholic boy finds the form of Troubles, which simmer unrecognized and misunderstood in the background of Britain’s northern cities.

Each story traces, plays with the unrecognized moment that changes the course of a child’s life: the murder of a pet dog, the experience of losing and finding oneself, the adolescent’s realization that loving adults You can be dead wrong about what’s important, daughters. recognize the life of their mothers beyond motherhood. The turning points are historically accurate. In the title story, the narrator reviews years of elocution lessons, provided after moving from a village school to the engine of social mobility that was the English grammar school (an academically elite secondary education provided free to anyone who could pass the entrance exam, although inevitably the exams favored the prosperous). In an exemplary use of the passive voice: “People thought I should be a lawyer. So they sent me to Miss Webster, to learn how to speak properly. Miss Webster has only one lung and her own accent is “precariously gentle, Manchester with icing”. The precision of the settings is part of the joy of reading these stories: the narrator “crawled home through the darkening streets, past other woolen shops with baby clothes in their windows, and the village delicatessen with its variety of pale sausages”. passing passengers “rushing home to their living rooms”. (A “parlor” is a still-declassified term for a living room, “through” meaning that the wall that once divided it from the now-redundant dining room has been torn down. England, lower-middle class, post-war.)

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

Sarah Moss’s latest novel is “The Fell.”

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

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