Ralph and Anna Eldred began their married life as missionaries in 1950s South Africa, and returned to England in the 1970s, where Ralph manages a charitable trust. In addition to their four children, Ralph & Anna also give shelter for disadvantaged youth who are sent from London to the country for rehabilitation. The book opens in the 1980s, and moves seamlessly backwards and forwards in time, gradually filling in the details of Ralph and Anna’s life together, and the lives of other significant figures, like their children and Ralph’s unmarried sister Emma.
For the first third of this book, I thought it was a fairly typical story of missionaries, and their adjustment to life “back home.” But I was wrong — A Change of Climate is a beautiful story of marriage, the lasting impact of tragedy and suffering, and the power of forgiveness and healing. There were several moments in this book that hit like a ton of bricks: Emma’s loneliness after her lover’s death, which goes unacknowledged by almost everyone; the reason Ralph chose his profession which, in turn, influenced Emma’s decision to become a doctor; the secret Ralph and Anna harbored for twenty years, and how it influenced absolutely everything they did, every day. There were also a myriad of moral issues, all laid before the reader in a way that allows us to form our own opinions.
While the plot and the moral dilemmas were captivating, I was also impressed with Mantel’s use of characters. Emma, in particular, stands in the middle of the “action,” usually as a stabilizing force that holds the family together through its darkest moments. Hilary Mantel has gained recognition in recent years through her historical novels. This is a much earlier work that embodies a similar quiet style: not a lot of action, and most of it happens in people’s heads. But it was, for me, a book with even greater emotional impact.