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.
My first experience with Nadine Gordimer was her Booker Prize-winning novel, The Conservationist. I found the book and Gordimer’s writing oddly fascinating, and in said my review, “despite my rather lukewarm reaction to this particular novel, I will definitely be reading more of her work.” This year I finally got around to it, first with None to Accompany Me (read my review), and more recently, Burger’s Daughter. And now I think I’ve had enough of Gordimer to last me a very long time.
Burger’s Daughter explores the idea of legacy through the character of Rosa Burger. After the death of her parents, both South African activists, Rosa tries to come to terms with what it means to be the daughter of such notable public figures. She is accustomed to dealing with the authorities, and with having to keep certain activities and relationships secret or risk arrest. She never knows whether people are interested in her for who she is, or for whose daughter she is.
That sounds kind of interesting, doesn’t it? Well it was, up to a point. But I missed the prerequisite course in South African politics and the issues of the day, and this time Gordimer’s writing completely failed to engage me. I read about 1/3 of this book but it was just too much of a struggle.
Set in barely post-apartheid South Africa, this is primarily the story of Vera Stark, who has spent her career working for a legal foundation as an advocate for housing rights. Her longevity makes her an unofficial executive director, and she commands tremendous respect. While Vera and her work are at the center of this book, it is also a moving portrait of two marriages. Vera is a strong woman, and fiercely independent. Her husband Ben needs her more than she needs him. Vera’s past figures heavily in her present, and in her relationship with Ben. Vera and Ben have very liberal views about race, and are long-time friends with a black South African couple, Sibongile (Sally) and Didymus Maqoma. Sally and Didy have only recently returned from exile, and in a surprise turn of events Sally is elected to an important post, and Didy finds himself on the sidelines.
Several threads run concurrently through this book. One of Vera’s black colleagues, Oupa, shows the reader a different layer of black society from that of Didy and Sally, and presents one of the more moving parts of the novel. Vera and Ben’s adult children have relationships and challenges of their own, and intersect with the parents’ lives in interesting ways. Sally and Didy’s daughter Mpho is a teenager, causing her parents angst as she comes of age. And then there’s Vera and Ben, whose relationship appears unshakable, but is actually threatened by a number of forces.
Nadine Gordimer also has a lot to say about the political structure taking shape in her country at the time of publication (1994), and its effect on everyday people. I suspect there were nuances in the text that went completely over my head. Deeper knowledge would have helped me appreciate the political context underpinning this study of characters and relationships.
Ben DuToit is a white teacher in South Africa, whose peaceful existence is shaken by the arrest of his black friend, Gordon. When Gordon dies in prison, Ben challenges the police report ruling his death a suicide. He begins his own investigation, and as he gathers facts a picture of lies and corruption emerges. Even when the court upholds the police ruling, Ben is undaunted. His family can’t understand his passion for justice. Here’s Ben discussing the inquest with his wife, Susan:
“They killed Gordon,” he said. “First they killed Jonathan, then him. How can they get away with it?”
“If they’d been guilty the court would have said so. I was just as shocked as you were when we heard about Gordon’s death, Ben. But it’s no use dwelling on it.” She pressed his hand more urgently. “It’s all over and done with now. You’re home again. Now you can settle down like before.” (p. 137)
But Ben can’t settle down, and his search for truth has far-reaching consequences. He is shunned by his family, friends, and colleagues. The experience causes him to question long-held beliefs about race, dating back to his time growing up in the South African veld:
The boys who tended sheep with me, and stole apricots with me, and scared the people at the huts with pumpkin ghosts, and who were punished with me, and yet were different. We lived in a house, they in mud huts with rocks on the roof. They took over our discarded clothes. They had to knock on the kitchen door. They laid our table, brought up our children, emptied our chamber pots, called us Baas and Miesies. … It was a good and comfortable division; it was right that people shouldn’t mix, that everyone should be allotted his own portion of land where he could act and live among his own. If it hadn’t been ordained explicitly in the Scriptures, then certainly it was implied by the variegated creation of an omniscient Father, and it didn’t behove us to intefere with his handiwork or try and improve on His ways by bringing forth impossible hybrids. That was the way it had always been. (p. 162)
André Brink has written a powerful portrayal of an ordinary man, caught up in a situation beyond his control, but intensely motivated by his beliefs. But Ben is only human, and unable to turn the tide of apartheid on his own. In working for justice Ben is transformed, but pays a huge price.