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.