I’ve received many delightful doorstops at Christmas—novels and memoirs mostly—but I’d also like to make the case for a slender volume of fiction as the perfect gift. The best short fiction, no matter how distressing or depressing, creates possibility: the tale is quickly told, we readers are jolted, our angle of vision shifts. What better time for a new angle than Christmas, when our focus is on that most transformative of stories, the Nativity?
And what better time to briefly retreat from clamorous gatherings to the contemplative cloister of a short story? We can hide away for twenty pages and return to the Christmas feast guilt-free. In Hilary Mantel’s superb collection, Learning to Talk (Henry Holt & Co., $19.99, 176 pp.), the stories all take place in the 1950s and ’60s in the grimy industrial North of England—a setting that seems especially apt for Christmastime, when we celebrate a straitened family in a landscape made bleak by poverty. The fictional family Mantel follows in these six stories is, however, no holy family: the mother has moved her lover into the house and her husband into a bedroom down the hall. It’s left to the eldest child to bear witness to the ensuing moral chaos by narrating their story with precise, odd details, all faithful to the skewed understanding of children. Increasingly aware of class and bias against Irish families like hers, the child is learning to talk properly in elocution classes, which Mantel skewers deliciously.
Learning to Talk may also provide some solace to readers stunned by Mantel’s sudden death in September. Best known for her Booker Prize–winning Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, she is as bracing a story writer as she is a novelist; a previously released collection, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, is also a knockout. The “new” collection was released in the United States shortly before Mantel’s death, though it was published in the United Kingdom in 2003, the same year as her compelling memoir, Giving Up the Ghost. This edition includes a brief preface in which Mantel calls attention to the “autoscopic” nature of these stories—yes, they tell her family’s story, but they don’t sensationalize the central drama: it’s too hard to believe anyway, she argues. Though Mantel’s tongue is tart, she names each and every struggle the family endures, an exercise in narrative empathy told in economic rather than emotional terms. In the same story, the narrator says, “I like to understand history through figures and percentages of these figures, through knowing the price of coal and the price of corn, and the price of a loaf in Paris on the day the Bastille fell.”