Monday, July 25, 2011

A world not merely divided into good souls and sad cases (Books - A Change of Climate by Hilary Mantel)

One day when Kit was ten years old, a visitor cut her wrists in the kitchen. She was just beginning on this cold, difficult form of death when Kit came in to get a glass of milk.
The woman Joan was sixty years old, and wore a polyester dress from a charity shop. A housewifely type, she had chosen to drip her blood into the kitchen sink. When Kit touched her on the elbow, she threw down the knife on to the draining board and attempted with her good hand to cover Kit's eyes.

Kit, as the prelude of A Change of Climate concludes, lives in a world in which people are divided into good souls and sad cases. The strength of Hilary Mantel's 1994 novel is that she is not one of the people to so divide the world. This novel is political and domestic, it is ruthless and tender, but it is never preachy. It is comfortable with its contradictions. Kit is one of three children of Ralph and Anna, a Norfolk couple who, having started their lives as missionaries in South Africa, dedicate themselves to social work as employment for their adult lives. Ralph and Anna live their mission, taking runaways and addicts into their home, never having enough money for a functional car or new clothing for their children. They are people of admirable conviction, but that makes them far from perfect, and their cause is so just that they can use it to forget past wrongs. If they devote themselves fully to the hardships of others, perhaps they will never have to think of the burdens they bear themselves. This makes for complex lives for both themselves and their children.

During the novel's action, a local child is kidnapped and Julian, another of Anna and Ralph's children, decides he will accompany his younger sister everywhere in order to protect her.
Anna looked up. 'And will you be her escort for life, Julian? Thirteen-year-olds are at risk, but then so are eighteen-year-olds. So are forty-year-olds. You hear of battered grannies, don't you?'
How much can we do for others? And who, really, are we doing it for? I'm afraid all this emphasis on the message of A Change of Climate makes the book sound like a real downer, but it's not. It's humorous, suspenseful, and touching, but never maudlin. There is hardly a sentence that isn't exquisitely crafted. Take the opening sequence excerpted above. Not merely does it open the novel with a bang. In its first sentence Mantel is creating a rich sensoral envelop of experience - contrasting the red of blood with the white of milk. The world weary liquid with the liquid of childhood innocence. In another example, Mantel tells us that Ralph is not in the habit of drinking alcohol.
Alcohol, for Ralph, was a medicinal substnace only. Brandy might be taken for colic, when other remedies had failed. Hot whisky and lemon might be taken for colds, for Ralph recognized that people with colds need cheering up, and he was all for cheerfulness. But drink as social unction was something that had never been part of his life. His parents did not drink, and he had never freed himself from his parents.
What a character observation. Like a zinger interpretation from a really great psychotherapist, summed up in a single sentence. These are the details that steer the subject matter of the politics of apartheid, adultery, and loss of faith away from diatribe. The richly drawn human beings in this novel embody their complex moral conundrum rather than serve as the mouthpiece for it, rending Hilary Mantel's A Change of Climate a work of art. I really thought this novel stunning. Compassionate, tense, meaningful, and well-crafted, but don't fear for all this, that you won't also then be entertained.

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