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'Learning To Talk' focuses on growing up in mid-20th-century England

<em>Learning to Talk</em>
Henry Holt & Co.
Learning to Talk

If you're familiar with the work of British author Hilary Mantel, there's a good chance it's because of her Wolf Hall trilogy of historical novels. The books, which chronicle the life of King Henry VIII's chief minister Thomas Cromwell, are bona fide page-turners — epic in every sense of the word.

Mantel's book Learning to Talk, now published for the first time in the U.S., has a decidedly 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 even though 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 a man was what caused alarm and shattered the piece." The sort-of-family takes a trip to visit Jacob, an old friend of Jack's, in Birmingham; the narrator forms a quick connection with Jacob's niece. The two go play in a nearby salvage yard, and quickly get lost.

That's all there is to the plot of the story, but in Mantel's hands, it doesn't feel just like a childhood memory, the kind that's as likely to be forgotten as remembered. Mantel weaves in the narrator's childhood anxieties — her misgivings about her mother's relationship, her complicated relationship with the Catholicism she grew up with — and the result is a subtly gorgeous story, filled with Mantel's enchanting prose: "Mercy was a theory that I had not seen in operation. I had only seen how those who wielded power extracted maximum advantage from every situation."

Mantel turns to early childhood again in "King Billy Is a Gentleman," which follows a lawyer looking back on his youth growing up in a village near Manchester. He's chronically ill, and his fellow young people don't quite know what to do with him: "But because my mother kept me away from school so often — I was sick with this and I was sick with that — I was a strange object to them, and my name, which was Liam, they said was ridiculous."

As an adult, Liam hears of the death of one of his former neighbors, and realizes that he's created a distance, perhaps subconsciously, from his younger self. "I knew I had been pulling away; I knew I had been extracting myself bodily, piece by piece, from my early life," he reflects. "I had missed so much, naturally, and yet I thought I had missed nothing of consequence."

Again, Mantel finds a kind of sad beauty in little moments, and it's astonishing how well she's able to tap into the psyche of a young person who doesn't quite fit in, but maybe isn't sure if he wants to anyway. There's no sentimentality in the story, but neither is there a shortage of genuine feeling — readers who enjoyed L.P. Hartley's The Go-Between will find much that will appeal to them here.

The young people in Mantel's stories aren't happy-go-lucky scamps whiling away their hours on the playground; they're serious, sometimes sickly, and filled with an isolating sense of unbelonging. That's the case with the narrator of the title story, who's sent to elocution lessons because "I hadn't learned to talk proper."

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

The stories in the book, Mantel writes in a preface for the collection, were inspired by her own childhood in northern England: "All the tales arose out of questions I asked myself about my early years. I cannot say that by sliding my life into a fictional form I was solving puzzles — but at least I was pushing the pieces about."

And the result is magnificent. Learning to Talk is a lovely book, quiet but intense in its own way, and it proves — once again — that Mantel is one of the finest English-language authors working today.

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Michael Schaub
Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.
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