Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.

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Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Hilary Mantel's A Change of Climate

A lazier blogger would direct you here. Joan Accocella says it all with her usual verve and enthusisam. So feel free to skip this blog.

Prior to the above article I'd never heard of Mantel. I lodged her in my mental "to be read" pile, where she resided until I bought Climate used. The book languished for months while I read other works, until BLCKDGRD suggested I check her out.

Warning: plot spoilers ahead. And none of them have to do with that kid from the wizard school.

A Change of Climate is the story of Ralph and Anna Eldred, Low Church Missionaries sent to South Africa in 1956. As Apartheid draws its noose, the couple are briefly imprisoned for consorting with the ANC. Enraged and horrified, they are deported to Bechunaland, now Botswana. There they are forced to take up residence in a rotting backwater populated by sullen, inpoverished Africans who openly resent them.

Ralph and Anna are very much products of their Victorian parents, resolutely small, mean people rationalizing their narrowness in the name of Christianity. Neither family has much use for Darwin, the unsettling truths uncovered by Ralph's interest in geography, or the lower classes. Their hopes for Ralph and Anna are vague--do good, be good--yet immovable. Ralph must not be a geologist, as this goes against all right thinking; Anna must be a virtuous girl, then an endlessly forgiving wife and mother. For this is how good English people behave.

Unable to break from their parents' lives, which are the epitome of quiet desperation, the couple initially view Africa as both an opportunity to help those less fortunate and a marvellously distant escape. But their arrest, followed by their residency in the Bechunaland village of Mosadinyana, are a grim journey into human evil.

The book alternates between the present--1980, where Ralph, Anna, and their children reside in the English countryside--and their time in Africa. Only the brief spells set in the present day alleviate this novel from a nearly unbearable sense of foreboding. Mosadinayana is a waking nightmare of snakes, thieves, and beggars. Dogs and cats are abused; Enock, Ralph and Anna's sullen gardener, kills the plants, poisons their dog, steals Ralph's clothing. When Anna, at her wits' end with his theft, finally fires him, he exacts revenge.

One rainy night Ralph, ever the soul of Christian kindness, opens the door to beggars seeking shelter--or so he thinks--only to find Enock and another man, both armed. Though Ralph puts up a fight, he is injured. Enock and the other man kidnap Ralph and Anna's twin infants, Kit and Matthew. Kit is left in a creekbed to drown, but is found and survives. Matthew, it is surmised, is killed for body parts, popular with witch doctors. His tiny body is never found.

The shell-shocked Ralph and Anna are sent home, where they decide to bury the past. Kit is not told of her twin; their time in Africa is not discussed. Three more children are born. Ralph becomes involved in rescuing the drug-addled children constantly sent out to live with the family (dubbed by their children as "sad cases" or "good souls.") while Anna tries to distract herself with motherhood and the maintenance of their crumbling home. She fails: unlike her husband, she can neither forgive nor forget. Her Christian faith is a sham, her patience eggshell thin.

The children, meanwhile, are aware something is greatly amiss. But they aren't sure quite what; as Kit presses Ralph's sister Emma for information, Ralph begins an affair with a local woman. This brings the book to a climax: Anna's rage, for years repressed, explodes. The marriage and family, it seems, will shatter, yet at the final moments of the book a strange redemption arrives, bleak in its own right, yet suprising even in its existence. Mantel's view of humanity is so terribly dim that the smallest bit of possibility is surprising. And terribly tenuous, for the ending, while comparatively uplifting, promises nothing.

---

Mantel's prose style is densely evocative, particulary of England's often distasteful weather:

"The Norfolk climate gave Anna a bloodless look, tinged her thin hands with violet. Every winter she would think of Africa; days when, leaving her warm bed in a hot early dawn, she had felt her limbs grow fluid, and the pores of her face open like petals, and her ribs, free from their accustomed tense gauge, move to allow her a full, voluptuary's breath. In England she never felt this confidence...English heat is fiful; clouds pass before the sun." (17)

When Emma visits Walsingham Church after the death of her long-time married lover, the weather is again bitter:

"Across the flat fields towers spiked the snow-charged sky, the clouds pregnant and bowed by cold..." (24)

The weather is synonymous with the characters' hearts, for once outside Africa, beyond youth and innocence, Ralph and Anna freeze.

----

So why read this definitively unbeachy, wintry novel? Well, to avoid becoming the sort of person who reads animal books. To read about what happens when well-meaning white people go where they are unwanted. To recall that religion is often used to veil hypocrisy. To know what happens when secrets fester.

To turn yourself over to a fine writer who staunchly refuses to produce a bouncy, idiotic animal memiors while Rome burns.

Hilary Mantel. A Change in Climate. A Marian Wood/Owl Book. Henry Holt, New York. 1994.

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