Hilary Mantel excels at turning characters inside out. In her remarkable 1992 novel “A Place of Greater Safety,” she got inside the heads of the instigators of the French Revolution, detailing the everyday concerns over money, sex, and family matters that triggered a world-changing war. By the time of her multiple Booker Prize-winning “Wolf Hall” trilogy, which kicked off in 2009, the internal dialogue was front and center, giving us a Thomas Cromwell whose past lived in every move he made as Henry VIII’s chief adviser. In “Learning to Talk,” the British author turns that focus inward, exploring her own development as an author and her contentious relationship with the English language in six semi-autobiographical short stories and one essay.
“Learning to Talk,” as a whole, documents a difficult childhood in Northern England, a hardscrabble life complicated by a strong-willed mother who defied the region’s conservative mores by living, for a time, with two men. “The exact circumstances were so bizarre that, if placed in a story unmodified, they would knock every other element out of it,” Mantel writes in the new preface to the collection, which was published in the United Kingdom in 2003. (All but the final piece, the essay “Giving up the Ghost,” had also appeared previously in periodicals.)
While far from idyllic, this unorthodox arrangement was ideal for a budding fiction writer.
“[O]nce a family has acquired a habit of secrecy, memories begin to distort, because its members confabulate to cover the gaps in the facts,” she writes in “Giving Up the Ghost,” which is drawn from the 2003 memoir of the same title.
The proof is in these stories, as Mantel explores different facets of a semi-outcast childhood in her striking and starkly beautiful prose. Although best known for her long novels, Mantel has also excelled at short, intensely atmospheric books, such as “Fludd” (set in her childhood Derbyshire), and here that economy shines, as when she homes in on the telling detail with surgical precision. “[W]e continued to live in one of those houses where there was never any money, and doors were slammed hard,” she writes. That specification even extends to metaphors, as when a neighbor girl, is described as “meager, like a nameless cut in a butcher’s window in a demolition area.”
This skill is employed to convey moments of struggle, childhood battles depicted obliquely and, often, without a clear conclusion. “Destroyed,” for example, seemingly focuses on the young protagonist’s two dogs, the first a gift who is joined by his littermate, an untrainable rescue who was “going to be destroyed.” The backdrop, however, is of loss and change in human families: a drowned cousin “tipped out of the rowing boat” or a baby named for an aunt’s dead husband. As the protagonist’s new half-siblings steal away her mother’s attention, the young Hilary absorbs this shifting family dynamic: “So the years began in which I pretended to be someone else’s daughter,” she recalls, before explaining that a missing pet “is only my stepdog.”
A slightly older Hilary is the focus of the title story, “Learning to Talk.” Following her family’s move to a somewhat more upscale area, she is sent for elocution lessons as part of the transition. People with regional accents, she knew, “found themselves treated with a conscious cheeriness, as if they were bereaved or slightly deformed.” Already at her convent school, “groups of girls would approach me with idiot questions, their object being to get me to pronounce certain words, shibboleths, then they would prance off, hooting and giggling.”
However, the lessons only serve to reinforce the rigid class structure. Everything about them, from the shopkeeper teacher to the classroom, strives toward an unreachable gentility: “This room overlooked a square of garden, in which a few shrubs withered gently.” The experience is excruciating, leaving our protagonist “thinking with longing of those abandoned children who are suckled by wolves and who all their lives remain mute.”
She may as well have been. Throughout these stories, fathers change or disappear, while mothers strive for something better — leaving only anger and a sense of doom. In “Third Floor Rising,” an 18-year-old Hilary attempts to follow her mother’s “glittering career” as a saleswoman in a department store. Only she can never quite catch up to her “ever-popular” mother, and instead becomes the repository for resentment against her. An ongoing institutional lie about the stock — “[t]rivial: like a needle-point snapped under the skin” — finally triggers her own small rebellion, too little, too late, and ultimately recanted.
“From about the age of four I had begun to believe I had done something wrong,” the author writes in the final piece. That guilt, the flip side to the childhood assumption of responsibility and all that seething anger, permeates these pieces like the cold northern damp, giving these small domestic dramas outsized power. “The story of my own childhood is a complicated sentence that I am always trying to finish,” she concludes. Mantel was born a poor Northern girl, but she was raised to be a writer who would destroy kingdoms.
LEARNING TO TALK: STORIES
By Hilary Mantel
Henry Holt, 176 pages, $19.99