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Published on: 09/7/22 6:22 AM

Books: Learning to Talk by Hilary Mantel

LEARNING TO TALK, Henry Holt Books, is the just released US edition of a set of short stories Hilary Mantel wrote in 2003.

There are just seven short stories in this slim volume but let me tell you something: it takes a long time to traverse the worlds in those stories, to digest the emotions that the characters lay out neatly, to muse on how days of innocence can all too quickly become days gnawed by confusion, resentment, dismay.

Why do I talk of days of innocence? Because Mantel`s canvas in this book features just the one backdrop: a young girl`s childhood. The young girl in question has a volatile capricious mother. Soon the mother brings in a fake father to live with them all (the child`s real father included), younger brothers follow, social opprobrium follows, and the child is pitchforked into a world far from ideal for a young one to be in.

It’s a different childhood, it’s the same childhood. The different colours added to the canvas, on closer inspection, are all from the same pallet of grey blue and white, all wrapped with a gauzy stole of melancholia.

An uncertain childhood

The child is vulnerable, uncertain, yet to fix on a cope strategy to `do her days.` The village in northern England is `scoured by bitter winds and rough gossip tongues.` The child needs to get out of there, to free herself from the emotional shackles her mother has wound around her, to speak less like a rustic and more like a townie…hence the title of the book. The child also needs to become happy.  Most poignantly, the child wants to look back at a misspent youth.

Mantel delivers with characteristic — on language and emotions.

There are sentences like:

  • Night falls, on this new dispensation; it falls and falls on me.
  • When I was seventeen I was as unprepared for life as if I had spent my childhood on a mountainside minding goats.
  • Everything is just once and happiness can`t be repeated.

The story of my childhood, says the author, is a complicated sentence that I am always trying to finish, to finish and put behind me.

Learning to Talk could well have been a catharsis of sorts for the writer. As for the reader, it is yet another well-delivered lesson in how the human condition remains pretty much the same for us across the world. A rewarding read for fans of Mantel`s writing.

Related Links:

Book review: The Mirror & the Light by Hilary Mantel

Book review: The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel


Henry Holt BooksHilary MantelLearning to Talkshort storiesuncertain childhood

Sheila Kumar • September 7, 2022

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