Book Review: A Change of Climate by Hilary Mantel

A Change Of Climate by Hilary Mantel

A Change Of Climate by Hilary Mantel (Fourth Estate)

A Change Of Climate spans the vast, flat skies of rural Norfolk and the scorched sun-drench earth of southern Africa. It’s a family saga with bite and brutality told in Mantel’s elegant, expressive style.

Husband and wife Anna and Ralph Eldred are children of stout Norfolk Christians, Edwardian stock who believe that Darwinism is atheism. Desperate to escape their parents’ closed minds and their bland cruelty, Anna and Ralph leave the flat fields of East Anglia shortly after they marry to work in a mission centre in South Africa.

Their arrival coincides with the introduction of the Bantu Education Act, making it illegal for black South Africans to be educated. In the dusty, desperately poor village the Eldreds are placed in, they strive to make a difference and in so doing so find themselves inadvertently breaking the country’s rigid race laws. Their do-gooding earns them a stint in jail before they are exiled north to Bechuanaland where their lives are brutally wretched off course by a darkness that will haunt them for life.

Back in the present (their present, it’s 1980 in this novel) they’re back in Norfolk and have filled a draughty, rambling house with children and ugly, unsuitable furniture. Ralph, head of a the hostel charity his father helped found, stretches the house’s capacity – and the family’s patience – even further every summer with Sad Cases and Good Souls, clients he’s trying to rescue and rehabilitate with limited success.

Their four children are all home for the summer, the two eldest returning like migrating birds to their draughty Red House, but it’s not just the brisk East Anglican winds that are creating a chill in the house as the family starts to crumble.

There is a lightness about Hilary Mantel’s writing that is deceptively as unassuming as the Norfolk countryside. Her style is languid, unshowy; the plot appears even, devoid of turbulent drama. But Mantel quietly disarms us; this, her sixth novel, is a softly spoken book with a tough heart.

There’s a soap opera-ness to the story and in a lesser writer’s hands, the novel could have bristled and screeched with melodrama. But Mantel creates sophisticated fiction from what could have been a frothy aga saga with her vivid prose and her ability to create poetry from the banal. Her descriptions, whether of the windswept Norfolk countryside or the dusty villages of rural Africa, are evocative and remarkably fresh. The events of the novel unravel with a real-life like steadiness, rather than pouncing up on the story with all the subtlety of a bolt of lightning.

Many of the characters are broad sweeps, some like Julian, the family’s eldest son, disappear for chapters, his existence largely a catalyst for events bigger than him. But their absence doesn’t diminish their impact. Mantel convincingly fleshes them out by their experiences and by the impact of the actions of those they love.

Mantel spent several years in Botswana and the Africa of A Change Of Climate is not the romantic, sunset-over-the-plains cliche that we’re used to seeing. The locals aren’t saintly in their poverty, for the most part they are quietly baffled and hostile at the Eldreds and their useless god, books and developed world guilt. Similarly the Sad Cases and Good Souls aren’t simply damaged goods just in need of a hug.

Mantel’s writing is fairly divisive, her style can jar, which I think isn’t just her want of writing in the present tense, but also her dialogue. I love the way her characters speak to each other, but it’s rather stagey and I can see how it would grate. A late night conversation between the two youngest children Robin and Kit is very David Hare. But this archness reminds you that Mantel’s not writing a page turning family saga for the sake of it and that, despite the gripping story unfolding, the plot isn’t the whole story.

by Suzanne Elliott


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