Henry Holt & Co.
If you’re familiar with the work of British author Hilary Mantel, chances are it’s thanks to her hall of wolves trilogy of historical novels. The books, which chronicle the life of King Henry VIII’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, are true page-turners – epic in every sense of the word.
Mantle’s book Learn to speak, now first published in the US, has a much smaller scope – the short stories collected there 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 boyfriend, Jack, “your definition of a man, if a man was what alarmed and broke the room.” The kind of family goes on a trip to visit Jacob, an old friend of Jack, in Birmingham; the narrator forms a quick connection with Jacob’s niece. The two go to play at 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 like a childhood memory, the kind that’s as likely to be forgotten as remembered. Mantel digs into the narrator’s childhood anxieties – her doubts about her mother’s relationship, her complicated relationship with the Catholicism she grew up with – and the result is a subtly beautiful story, filled with the enchanting prose of Mantel: “Mercy was a theory I didn’t have. I had only seen how those in power got the maximum benefit out of every situation.
Mantel turns to early childhood again in “King Billy Is a Gentleman”, which follows a lawyer who looks back on his youth growing up in a village near Manchester. He suffers from a chronic illness and his young friends are not sure what to do with him: “But because my mother took 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 said was ridiculous.”
As an adult, Liam learns of the death of one of his former neighbors and realizes that he has drifted, perhaps unknowingly, from his younger self. “I knew I was drifting away; I knew I had physically extracted myself, piece by piece, from my youth,” he recalled. “I had missed so much, naturally, and yet I thought I hadn’t missed anything important.”
Again, Mantel finds a kind of sad beauty in small moments, and it’s amazing how well she is able to tap into the psyche of a youngster who doesn’t quite fit in, but doesn’t quite fit in. may not be sure you want it anyway. There’s no sentimentality in the story, but neither is there a lack of genuine sentiment – readers who enjoyed LP Hartley The middleman will find many things that will appeal to them here.
The young people in Mantel’s stories are not carefree hoodlums spending their hours on the playground; they are serious, sometimes sickly and filled with an isolating sense of not belonging. This is the case of the narrator of the title story, who is sent to speech because “I had not learned to speak properly”.
She’s a good, if not over-enthusiastic, student, and after her lessons she learns to have fun on the way home, claiming she’s “a spy in a foreign land, a woman pretending to be someone else.” another in a country approaching war”. It’s a remarkably inner story, a character study of a young person who can’t stand their own youth: “There should be support groups, like a twelve-step program, for young people who hate being young” , mused the narrator, adding shortly afterwards, “Only later do you think of the wasted years; if I were to have any youth, I now wish it had been ill-spent.”
The stories in the book, Mantel writes in a preface to the collection, were inspired by his own childhood in the North of England: “All tales were born from questions I asked myself about my early years. I cannot not to say that by slipping my life into a fictional form, I was solving puzzles – but at least I was pushing the pieces.”
And the result is magnificent. Learn to speak is a charming book, calm but intense in its own way, and it proves – once again – that Mantel is one of the finest English-language authors working today.