Hilary Mantel’s ‘Learning To Talk’ Focuses On Growing Up : NPR

Learn to talk

Hendrik Holt & Co.

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Hendrik Holt & Co.

Learn to talk

Hendrik Holt & Co.

If you’re familiar with British author Hilary Mantel’s work, chances are it’s because of her Wolf Hall trilogy of historical novels. Depicting the life of King Henry VIII’s Prime Minister Thomas Cromwell, the books are bonafide page-turners – epic in every sense of the word.

Mantel’s book learn to talk, now first published in the US, it has a noticeably smaller scope – the short stories collected in it focus on young characters growing up in mid-20th century England. It’s a testament to Mantel’s brilliance as an author that while the moments in these stories are subtle, the book somehow feels epic in its own way.

In “Curved Is the Line of Beauty,” the narrator recounts growing up with her mother and her mother’s live-in boyfriend, Jack, “your definition of a man, if it was a man who sounded the alarm and shattered the piece.” The kind of family travels to visit Jacob, an old friend of Jack’s, in Birmingham; the narrator quickly connects with Jacob’s niece. The two go to play in a nearby storage shed and soon get lost.

There’s not much else to say about the plot of the story, but in Mantel’s hands it doesn’t just feel like a childhood memory, the kind that will be forgotten as soon as it will be remembered. Mantel interweaves the narrator’s childhood fears—her doubts about her mother’s relationship, her complicated relationship with Catholicism growing up—and the result is a subtly beautiful tale, filled with Mantel’s enchanting prose: “Grace was a theory I hadn’t seen in action. I had only seen how those who wielded power took maximum advantage of any situation.”

Mantel returns to early childhood in ‘King Billy Is a Gentleman’, which follows a lawyer who looks back on his childhood growing up in a village near Manchester. He is chronically ill and his fellow youngsters don’t know what to do with him: “But because my mother kept me away from school so often – I was sick of this and I was sick of that – I was a strange object to them, and my name, which was Liam, they thought was ridiculous.”

As an adult, Liam hears about the death of one of his former neighbors and realizes that, perhaps unconsciously, he has created a distance from his younger self. “I knew I had withdrawn; I knew that I had withdrawn myself physically, bit by bit, from my early life,” he recalls. “Of course I had missed so much, and yet I thought I had missed nothing of importance.”

Again, Mantel finds a kind of sad beauty in small moments, and it’s amazing how well she’s able to tap into the psyche of a young person who doesn’t quite fit in, but may not be sure he wants to. There’s no sentimentality in the story, but there’s no lack of heartfelt sentiment either – readers who enjoyed LP Hartley’s the middle way will find many here that will appeal to them.

The youngsters in Mantel’s stories are not lazy con men who spend their hours on the playground; they are serious, sometimes sickly and filled with an isolating sense of not belonging. Such is the case with the narrator of the title story, who is sent to speech classes because “I hadn’t learned to speak properly.”

She is a good student, if not overly enthusiastic, and after her lessons she learns to have fun on the way home by pretending to be “a spy in a foreign land, a woman passing for someone else in a country that war is approaching.” It’s a remarkable internal story, a character study of a young person who can’t bear her own childhood: “There should be support groups, like a twelve-step program, for young people who hate being young,” reflects the narrator, adding not. long after: “It’s only later that you think of the wasted years; if I had to have a childhood, I wish it had been misused now.”

The stories in the book, Mantel writes in a preface to the collection, are inspired by her own childhood in Northern England: “All the stories arose from questions I asked myself about my early years. I can’t say that because my life in a fictional form I was solving puzzles – but at least I was pushing the pieces around.”

And the result is magnificent. Learn to talk is a beautiful book, calm but intense in its own way, and it proves – once again – that Mantel is one of the best English-language authors working today.

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