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A Change of Climate by Hilary Mantel: Betrayal and Forgiveness

Drakensburg mountains in Aouth Africa

I almost abandoned A Change of Climate but some part of my brain signalled that I should press on.  Which was fortunate because, whereas the first half of the book is deceptively quiet and largely uneventful, Hilary Mantel more than makes up for it with a dramatic and emotional second half.

The story concerns Ralph and Anna Eldred, parents of four children, who live in a large and dilapidated house in Norfolk. They give the appearance of being selfless do-gooders, opening their home to drug addicts, homeless kids, waifs and strays; all of them beneficiaries of a religious charitable trust set up by Ralph’s father.

But there are clearly some tensions in this set up. The trust sucks up all their money and Ralph feels drained by the constant need to beg for funds. Although the problems of rural deprivation are as acute as ever, his level of satisfaction with helping its victims is on the wane.

He was torn, divided. The demands of the world dragged on his conscience; but did he do enough for his own family? … Today he had just one more letter to do …Yawned. But, he told himself, don’t despise these little things; they add up. A tiny series of actions, of small duties well performed, eventually does some good in the world. That’s the theory anyway.

Anna feels increasingly alienated from her husband. He spends all his time in meetings or on the phone solving the latest crisis while she’s left coping with a draughty house smelling of mice and mould. She and her children are worn down by the trail of ‘‘good souls and sad cases’ Ralph has brought into their lives to try and rehabilitate them – with little success.

Secrets From The Past

For a long time I thought this was a fairly typical story about a marriage in difficulty. But I was proved wrong because as the novel progresses, it becomes clear that the fragility of the Eldred’s relationship is the consequence of an event twenty years ago when they were missionaries at a remote station in South Africa.

It’s not until the second half, when the novel moves back to the late 1950s, that we discover the nature of the catastrophe that befell them and that has affected their lives ever since. From that point on, A Change of Climate was transformed into a novel about pain and suffering, betrayal and forgiveness.

The act of horror perpetrated on the Eldreds causes Ralph to lose hope that they will ever feel safe or to blindly believe in goodness. In a letter to his uncle he says prayers are futile because he no longer knows to what he would be praying.

Before now I have looked at the world and I have seen no compelling evidence of the goodness of God, but I chose to believe in it because I thought it was more constructive to do so. I thought here was order in the world, at least – a ind of progress, a meaning, a pattern. But where is the pattern now?

Family Tragedy

A Change of Climate is a cleverly constructed novel in which the revelation is delayed while Hilary Mantel steadily builds up the story of the couple’s life post Africa. The book moves backwards and forwards in time, introducing us to each of their children and Ralph’s unmarried sister Emma, a stabilising force for all the Eldreds.

Hilary Mantel’s style in this novel is noticeably different to that in much of her other work. it’s quieter in tone for much of the time, but no less emotionally affecting, particularly in the final section. This is a novel that asks about forgiveness and whether it is possible to escape the past.

It’s well worth reading, you just have to give it time to mature.

This review was published at in 2019. This is an updated version with formatting changes to improve readability and upgrade to the WordPress block editor platform. It is re-published in support of #throwbackthursday hosted by Davida @ The Chocolate Lady’s Book Review Blog.

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