Two-time Booker Prize-winning British author Hilary Mantel’s books pack a memorable punch, no matter what she writes. Fans have devoured her Wolf Hall trilogy, whose final book, The Mirror & the Light (2020), was 784 pages long. Her memoir was lengthy, too—400 pages for Giving Up the Ghost (2003). Now readers are in for a decidedly different yet equally rich treat: a brief collection of short stories (clocking in at 176 easily digestible pages) that she intriguingly describes as “autoscopic” rather than autobiographical.
Learning to Talk consists of seven stories, arranged chronologically, in which Mantel reflects loosely on her English childhood and explores, as she writes in the preface, “the swampy territory that lies between history and myth.” She explains that the writing of these stories was a “strenuous” process that took years. For example, the first and final lines of “King Billy Is a Gentleman” arrived almost simultaneously, but she needed “twelve years to fill in the middle.”
These are evocative, precisely drawn, ghost-ridden tales about impoverished, difficult times, yet they are also filled with a growing awareness that better things await. In the aforementioned “King Billy Is a Gentleman,” the narrator describes her gradual realization that her mother created a scandal by bringing in a lodger who became her mother’s lover. In the arresting “Curved Is the Line of Beauty,” the narrator and her family take a day trip to Birmingham, where the narrator becomes hopelessly lost in a junkyard with another girl—just as Mantel wanders in the memories, myths and secrets that filled her childhood. In “Learning to Talk,” the narrator is beginning to find her voice while taking elocution lessons to learn to “talk proper.” Notably, the narrator says, “Surely it was not necessary to talk for a living? Wouldn’t it be possible to keep your mouth shut, and perhaps write things down?”
Why write such stories after publishing a memoir? In the final story, which shares its title with Mantel’s memoir, the author answers this question precisely: “The story of my own childhood is a complicated sentence that I am always trying to finish, to finish and put behind me. It resists finishing, and partly this is because words are not enough; my early world was synesthetic, and I am haunted by the ghosts of my own sense of impressions, which reemerge when I try to write, and shiver between the lines.”
Learning to Talk is an unusual and ultimately fascinating amalgam of fact and fiction as Mantel sorts through the puzzle pieces of her past.