Saturday, July 09, 2022

Hilary Mantel examines her childhood via fiction in Learning to Talk

Two-time Booker winner Mantel explores the haunted landscapes of her childhood in this anthology, first published in Britain in 2003. The six stories, set in 1950s-70s industrial northern England, read like personal essays but sifted through a fictional lens: she calls them “autoscopic” rather than autobiographical.

The narrators closely observe their young lives amidst many adult tensions and secrets, such as marital scandals and class, racial, and religious differences. Children’s playground squabbles become a microcosm of Protestant-Catholic frictions, and two girls’ experience getting lost in a junkyard induces musings on emotional rootedness. Standouts are the title story, about elocution lessons for social mobility, and “The Clean Slate,” which delves into the mutability of historical memory through reflections on a drowned village.

Mantel carves beauty out of bleakness, crafting brilliant metaphors with penetrating human insights. “The country through which they move is older, more intimate than ours,” she writes about children’s innate knowledge of deducing truth about their world. Read this collection alongside her memoir, Giving Up the Ghost (2003), for additional insight into her life and creative process.

Learning to Talk was published in the US by Henry Holt in June and has been receiving a great deal of critical attention for a book nearly two decades old; this marks the first US publication. Can the stories be called historical fiction?  This depends on your definition. Some aspects take place close to 50 years before the time of writing, while other stories are more recent. I wrote this review for Booklist Online (published online on June 30). Mantel wrote a new preface for this latest edition.

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