A Change of Climate by Hilary Mantel

A Change of Climate is one of Hilary Mantel’s early books, first published in 1994 and  described on the back cover as ‘˜a literary family saga’ and ‘˜a first rate thriller’.

I quoted from the beginning of this book in this post. I noted that at the end of the book there is an About the Author section, which I’d just glanced over. In answer to one of the interviewer’s questions about the theme of the book, Hilary Mantel replied that there is a central secret, an enormous destructive secret. I didn’t want to spoil the book for myself so I didn’t read any more of her answers. And I don’t want to spoil it for anyone else so I’m not saying what that secret is in this post.

The ‘enormous destructive secret‘ Hilary Mantel referred to is revealed just over halfway into the book. But the book abounds in secrets and it’s also about family, trust, disillusionment and tragedy, about bereavement and loss of faith, as one character observes, ‘faith is something people chase after, simply to give life meaning‘.

Hilary Mantel writes a compelling story, subtly mixing the past and the present, moving seamlessly between the Eldred family’s current life (in the 1980s) in Norfolk, with their earlier life in Africa in the 1950s. I like her writing very much, never drawing attention to its style and drawing me in effortlessly into both time frames and places.

It’s a family saga (most definitely not an Aga Saga) about Ralph and Anna Eldred, their four children and Ralph’s sister Emma. Ralph and Anna devote their lives to charity, filling their house with ‘Visitors’, described as either ‘Good Souls’ or ‘ Sad Cases’. Just after they were married Ralph and Anna went to South Africa as missionaries and under the system of apartheid there they ran up against the authorities, then moved to Beuchuanaland (Botswana) where a terrible and horrific event occurred and they returned to England.  However, their memories of these traumatic events refused to remain buried, eventually bringing their lives and those of their children into terrible turmoil.

There are many issues raised in this book – chief among them the struggle between good and evil. Ralph thinks:

If we are not to be mere animals, or babies, we must always choose, and choose to do good. In choosing evil we collude with the principal 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. (page 235)

But he discovered that it’s not that simple, as the rest of the book goes on to relate. Ralph and Anna can’t escape their past, Anna in particular cannot come to terms with what happened. The book explores questions about forgiveness and tragedy, as well as how to cope with grief.

Hilary Mantel states in the About the Author section that she found it the most difficult of her books to write – the secret just resisted being told:

I found that I was going round and round the point, yet I couldn’t put it on the page. I remember really struggling with it; it was like a wild animal that had to be civilised somehow, and in the end I just wrestled it on to the page by saying to myself, ‘Look, you’ve done this before and you can do it again’. Writing this book stands out as one of the most difficult times of my writing life.

A great book on all counts, characters and locations beautifully described and a well constructed and convincing plot, powerful and challenging on several levels.

15 thoughts on “A Change of Climate by Hilary Mantel

  1. I haven’t read anything by HM, but know I really should. Would this be a good place to start? It sounds rather interesting.


  2. I like the sound of this one. I know I’ve read one of her books – think it was something about a woman who was in an Arab country with her husband and her freedom was restricted because of local customs/laws. Does that sound familiar? I should go look it up.


    1. That sounds like the short story ‘Sorry to Disturb’ in her collection of short stories in ‘The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher’.


  3. I’ve probably read most of Hilary Mantel’s novels OTHER than Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, and I really liked them. I don’t know why I’ve been so reluctant to read those – it must be the hype. Although I like Tudor history.


    1. MarinaSofia don’t let the hype put you off – I really enjoyed both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, although they are written in the present tense, which I don’t usually like. In these books it works very well.


  4. This does sound like a great read, Margaret. Sometimes those ‘family’ stories really can be thrillers, too. And the setting appeals to me. I like Mantel’s writing style, too. Glad you enjoyed it.


  5. I read this some time ago, and agree it was an excellent read. But, I can’t remember what the author’s secret was, email me, what it was. I don’t have the book anymore.


  6. I’ve been wanting to read other books my Mantel–this seems like a good place to start. I find it interesting how she said how difficult the book was to write because the secret resisted being told.


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