Devotees of Hilary Mantel’s most famous work, the Wolf Hall trilogy, about the life of Thomas Cromwell, might be forgiven for not focusing first on her stylistic mastery—there are, in these novels, many remarkable elements to praise...But those who’ve delighted for decades in Mantel’s fiction revel in her chameleonlike facility with language, her ability effortlessly to evoke wildly diverse characters, settings, and atmospheres—not only the court of Henry VIII, but also the French Revolution, the stifling experience of an expat white woman in late-twentieth-century Saudi Arabia, or, in her new collection, Learning to Talk, the pinched and parochial society of England’s postwar north...The stories overlap, each a differently angled account of childhood trauma...Implied throughout is the pull of social ambition, a recognition that the stepfather, difficult as he was, enabled improvement in the family circumstances...The overall effect of the collection is of a palimpsest, the powerfully atmospheric evocation of an unhappy mid-twentieth-century childhood in northern England...Situation and prospects were determined by the binding nets of social class, bourgeois morality, and religion: to be cast out, lost, was both a terror and, perhaps, the only hope in a world replete with loss and unspeakable silences, simultaneously drab and deeply strange.
How unexpected, how consoling, that one of the best-selling British novelists of recent decades should also be such a peculiar, stringent prose stylist—and gothic affronter of authority ... Mantel evokes beautifully a place ingrained with the soot and sweat of labor, a time populated with racist landlords and 'dental cripples,' when relatives were the only domestic visitors, and one’s parents seemed to have no actual friends ... The drowned village is one of the larger conceits in Learning to Talk; usually, Mantel’s imagery is less allegorically freighted, less amenable. Her particular, unsettling skill lies in discovering queasy equivalents for physical sensations and emotional states—the body is always there, as metaphor, to remind us of its unmetaphorical heft and threat ... The innocent cruelty of childhood, youth’s horror at the alien predicaments of adult bodies and adult lives: Mantel conjures all this with nerveless precision ... Sickness also haunts Learning to Talk: an intermittent presence in childhood, a horizon, perhaps, toward which everything is moving. It’s part of the wider project or tendency in Mantel’s work: to explore, as she does so lucidly and strangely here, the hinterland between emotional history and anxious embodiment.
Hilary Mantel’s short story collection Learning to Talk was first published in Britain in 2003, before long-overdue prizes and international fame came her way. It shares the qualities of the contemporary novels she wrote for 20 years: sharp observation, alertness to the tomfooleries of class and gender, an uncanny capacity for the child’s-eye view, a door always open to the supernatural. And like Mantel’s most famous books, these stories are dark and absurd, the piping children’s voices brewed in wisdom and worldliness ... an exemplary use of the passive voice ... In this more or less autobiographical time frame of the 1960s and 1970s, Mantel remains a historical novelist, which is to say one always thinking about how politics, trends and events shape character, one who knows in every sentence that the political is personal and vice versa, one who inhabits bodies shaped by the specificities of time and place. Part of her consistent brilliance lies in her attention to ghosts and mortgages, the light on the moors and 1980s educational policy, adolescent self-discovery and irregular accounting. These stories hold worlds as wide as those of her longest novels.