A Change of Climate is an odd book. I didn’t love it, perhaps because I didn’t know quite what to make of it. It reminded me a lot of Joanna Trollope’s earlier novels — the “aga saga” ones, like A Village Affair, or Marrying the Mistress. It has a small cast of intertwined characters, all more or less eccentric, all more or less needy or damaged or just muddling along. The plot is essentially a family drama, its focus on the ebb and flow of people’s feelings (love, resentment, antagonism, yearning). But the resemblance is only superficial: though Trollope’s novels are not necessarily comfortable or reassuring, Mantel’s is built around a core of trauma so devastating that Ralph and Anna, the main characters, barely name it. The particular event takes place long before the novel’s present and far from its present location. Mantel explains it (naturally) better than I ever could:
…they’ve buried their experience, which they can do because it is something that happened in Africa, a place which, to their friends in England, is in any case the realms of the inexplicable. Africa becomes a metaphor for what we do not explore; in the novel it’s no longer a solid place that one can travel to, but somewhere consigned to the subconscious.
It’s a tricky game, turning the cliché of how Africa has so often been imagined (as the Other, as the heart of darkness) against itself like that. For a while, reading the novel, I thought Mantel had, unwittingly, fallen into the trap — but even her characters are self-conscious about it. When they get home, that’s one reason they try not to talk about their experience: “if we tell them what we think has happened, we will pander to their filthy prejudices, we will seem to traduce a whole nation: savages, they will say.”
Perhaps one lesson might be that they ought not to have gone, taking their naïve will to do good, their pragmatic but inevitably ignorant and intrusive mission to help, to a country they cannot understand or belong to. Perhaps they should just have stayed home. But to see their suffering simply as a punishment for colonial presumption would be reductive. They do help, for one thing. And one of the layers of the novel is an inquiry into the value of doing good. The catastrophe comes upon them because they opened the door to it: “I decided to do a good action, and by it my life has been split open and destroyed.” Is it really better not to do what you think is good, though? “In choosing evil,” thinks Ralph, puzzling over the meaning and the implications of free will,
we collude with the principle of decay, we become mere vehicles of chaos, we become subject to the laws of a universe which tends back towards dissolution, the universe the devil owns. In choosing to do good we show we have free will, that we are God-designed creatures who stand against all such laws.
So I will be good, Ralph thought. That is all I have to do.
Yet in doing so, he lets in evil — or, as he comes to think, “malign chance.” The result is a horror, and then a hollow at the center of their moral and emotional lives. What do you do, after that? How do you live? Ralph and Anna raise a family and continue doing good, opening the door to every “sad case” that comes their way, but there’s no foundation for the new life they build, and so it is much more fragile, its misadventures more frightening, than either the village setting or the specific plot would lead you to expect. But to what end? What does it all mean? In the interview notes with Mantel at the end, she talks about A Place of Greater Safety, which was her first completed novel but wasn’t published until after she had had some success writing “contemporary novels.” She says that when it was published she saw it as a way of letting her readers know “I was something else as well: an accumulator and sifter and sorter of facts, dates and research.” I did love A Place of Greater Safety; maybe my problem is that I first came to Mantel through what she calls the “other side to my writing personality.” I enjoy well-dramatized facts, dates and research; for me, the elliptical quality of this novel was tantalizing but also somewhat disorienting.
Now I am intrigued. I’ve only read Mantel’s Cromwell books and liked them very much. You have me curious about this different sort of style. I’ve heard Beyond Black is really good. Have you read that one and if so is it dates and research or more like this one?
I did read Beyond Black and didn’t love it either, though I have yet to read a novel of hers that’s uninteresting. The one I’ve liked best, besides the Cromwell ones and A Place of Greater Safety, is The Giant, O’Brien — also historical, but much terser and more allegorical in mode.
I love Beyond Black but then I see it first in the light of her memoir, which I think illuminates the reasons why her mind works in the way it does, and secondly in the light of the political situation in England she she wrote it. I think it is the most wonderful skit on Blair’s Britain that I’ve ever come across, but you probably had to be living through it to appreciate what is going on.
I can’t remember the title but the only one by Mantel I’ve read is about a group of girls in a boarding school. I thought it was very good. This one sounds very interesting, too. I’ve not read the Cromwell books as I really don’t trust historical fiction at all.
Some of my best friends are historical fiction! Seriously! It seems a shame to preemptively avoid historical fiction. Certainly Mantel’s Cromwell books are brilliant novels. Sure, it would be a mistake to think that a historical novel gives you the absolute truth about historical people or events — but though there are of course other important differences between the genres, non-fiction histories can’t do that either, and they also still have to tell a story that makes sense of the evidence they rely on.
“At all” is definitely an exaggeration.