Learning to Talk: short stories by Hilary Mantel

When I was a toddler a large dog attacked me, or rather a large dog ran from a neighbour’s garden and charged me to the ground. My Mum yelled at the neighbour, the neighbour yelled at the dog, I sprawled on the pavement bawling my head off, and the dog took the little doll I’d been carrying between its jaws and gnawed it, presumably hoping it was a bone. After our neighbour had restrained the dog and I’d been dusted off and inspected by Mum, it appeared the only casualty was Dolly, torn and chewed beyond salvation. Dolly was the first thing I lost.

The next was our pet Cat, the one who had kittens. Mum said Cat and all her kittens had to go apart from one. I picked the most boisterous from the litter, a black and white bundle of fun we called Felix. Later that week The Man arrived at our house with an empty basket and filled it with felines. I felt bad. Cat looked straight at me and meowed as The Man picked her up. If she’d been granted the power of speech at that moment I’m certain she would have said “Judas”.

After Dolly and Cat, things accelerated. Over time I’ve lost pets, friends, my parents. Smaller things have also gone missing: my stamp collection, my christening robe, that collection of Famous Five books.

We all have things we’ve treasured or people we’ve loved that are lost to us one way or another. I guess living means learning to let go, in which case Mantel’s short story collection Learning to Talk speaks directly about the human condition because in every story something is lost.

There are six stories in all, mostly narrated by children or young adults. King Billy is a Gentlemen concerns a Catholic boy and the Protestant family who move in next door. Destroyed centres on a girl and her pet dogs. Curved is the Line of Beauty sees a girl visiting a family friend. In Learning to Talk, a thirteen-year old girl is sent to elocution lessons. Third Floor Rising has an eighteen year old given a summer job at a department store where her mother is a manageress. Clean Slate is about a middle-aged woman asking her mother about her father’s side of the family.

The unifying loss is an absence of natural fathers. In King Billy the father leaves and is replaced by a lodger. In Destroyed the father-figure is a step-father. Curved sees the natural father retreat into the background, usurped by “Daddy Jack”. In the final three stories a father is not really mentioned. And each story also has its own unique loss: the neighbour’s son, a pet dog, the path out, an accent, garments, a whole village.

It’s a slim volume, running to just 160 pages, which includes a 20-page extract from Mantel’s memoir Giving Up the Ghost (an unexpected bonus or a bit of a swizz depending on your point of view). I’m a big fan of Mantel’s writing but not a big fan of short story collections – give me a novel any day – and although her prose is as good as ever, I’m not quite won over. Every story seems as if it’s told by the same “voice”, and maybe it’s that Giving Up the Ghost extract but I get the feeling the collection was simply part of the warm-up for the real business of writing that memoir.

Rating: * Not for me (but worth a try).

If you haven’t read anything by Mantel, find a comfy armchair and try her Wolf Hall trilogy: Wolf Hall (Man Booker prize winner in 2009); Bring Up the Bodies (Man Booker Prize and Costa Book of the Year in 2012); and The Mirror & the Light. I’ve reviewed all three in earlier posts (just click on the links).

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