Hilary Mantel celebrates her birthday this month, and we are honouring her by reading and reviewing her works. So I’m finally writing this long due review of the book, which I happened to read last year.
Trust Hilary Mantel to introduce a story with characters that, on the surface, feel ordinary, and somewhere down the book, hit them with such extreme crisis, that they elevate to the extraordinary. That is what happens in Mantel’s A Change of Climate. This happened to be the first book by Mantel that I read and frankly, I felt underwhelmed – but that was only until the first half of the book. Little did I know, that slowly but steadily, Mantel was building up the fever to a pitch where it would hit me hard in the gut. And then I couldn’t stop reading. And by the end of the book, I had become her fan.
A Change of Climate begins in 1980 in Norfolk. It starts with a child witnessing a suicide. Then it really begins with the funeral of a man, where both his wife and mistress are present. This sets in motion a theme you don’t really realize until some time later. It is really a clever piece of deception and only once you’ve finished reading the novel and re-read the start, does this become apparent.
Initially, you meet Ralph and Anna Eldred, who are missionaries – not religious ones, but the kind that does charitable works. They were both disappointed by their parents so when they first got married they sought in their new relationship a kind of comfort that comes from being a part of a happy family and genuine love. The newly-weds move to South Africa to run a mission house funded by a church. This is in the 1950s. South Africa has political problems, and try as they might to remain neutral, devoting themselves only to doing good work, they get embroiled in the lives of the ‘Sad Cases’ and ‘Good Souls’, and in the societal conflicts.
Considering that the Eldreds spent quite some time in their adopted land, you would imagine that the two would talk about the place more often. But they don’t. About thirty years later, when they are back in Norfolk, there is an underlying hint, a tension of sorts. Something happened in Africa. You feel it. Only you don’t know what it might be. And that is the magic of Mantel’s storytelling, to keep hinting but not entirely revealing.
Slowly, the repressed memories start surfacing. Ralph and Anna’s time in South Africa shows a young, energetic couple trying to do their best by providing support and food and shelter to those who get caught up in the injustices of their society. But as they try to lessen the sorrows of others, they fall foul of the authorities and end up getting arrested and jailed. The South Africans want the Eldreds out of their country, but the couple is not ready to come back home yet. So they move to Bechuanaland (now Botswana) to continue their work there. This is where the most horrifying episode of their lives takes place. And this becomes the defining moment of the novel.
Suddenly the couple you had been seeing as a single unit, indivisible, bonded together in their mission, suddenly split in two. The differences between them become as clear as day. The event that was to play such a shattering role in their lives, impacted them both in different ways. Ralph’s desire to do good precipitates the unfortunate event and Anna is unable to forgive the perpetrators as well as herself. She is emotionally crippled by the incident. Both the Eldreds have both lost their faith in wanting to help others, but continue to go through the motions anyway. When Anna discovers that Ralph is having an affair with their son’s girlfriend’s mom, all her repressed grief and rage explode.
Mantel move her narrative cleverly between two timelines. By using techniques like foreshadowing and hinting at mysteries, she keeps her readers’ interest piqued. It’s really a complex world at this seemingly straightforward story. The book enquires into the nature of good and evil, and the cost of extending charity in a world that is mostly grey. It also looks at what it means to be a family and how tiny misunderstandings, misperceptions and memories can make and break relationships.
This is an upsetting novel. But that doesn’t stop it from also being marvellous. Do give it a read – I’m sure you will enjoy it.
Have you read A Change of Climate? Tell us what you think of it.