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The Searchers

A CHANGE OF CLIMATE. By Hilary Mantel . Henry Holt: 322 pp., $12 paper : EIGHT MONTHS ON GHAZZAH STREET. By Hilary Mantel . Henry Holt: 278 pp., $12 paper

September 14, 1997|CHARLOTTE INNES | Charlotte Innes writes regularly about books for the Los Angeles Times, the Nation and other publications

Two-thirds of the way through "A Change of Climate," James, the head of a hostel for "derelicts and drunks" in the East End of London, is shaken to his Christian core. He has just received a letter from his nephew Ralph, who is a missionary in Botswana. Something terrible has happened to Ralph and his wife, Anna, something unimaginably violent. And because James is wise, kind and an old hand at life's tragedies, he tries to compose, haltingly, a few words of encouragement in preparation for Ralph and Anna's return to England.

"There is nothing, there is nothing worse, there is nothing so burdensome . . . there is nothing so appallingly hard . . . as the business of being human. . . ." The inadequate words die in his throat as he catches sight of himself in a mirror on the wall, a "desiccated old man, worn by humility, sucked dry by the constant effort of belief." Quickly, he shies away from these unbearable truths by submerging himself in altruism. "Glass is a danger in a place like this," he thinks, where fights break out in the blink of an eye and everything is a potential weapon, and he "should take the mirror down."

It's one of the more chilling moments in this darkly humorous book (perhaps Hilary Mantel's best), encapsulating the push and pull between emotion and repression, self-sacrifice and self-deception, pragmatism and confusion, goodness and evil--in fact, all the complicated "business of being human"--that animates everything Mantel writes.

Ranging widely in subject matter from family conflicts to the dilemmas of modern Roman Catholic prelates, from the French Revolution to English expatriate life, Mantel's seven novels offer lessons in life's contrariness, in the tensions between free will, unfortunate accident and involuntary behavior. Thus a well-meaning but disappointed mother inflicts emotional damage on her daughter, while a good priest causes someone's death. Philanthropists bring succor to the world but neglect their own children; colonized Africans cause as much damage as their vicious masters.

In Mantel's world, a wolf lurks inside every cottage, or as Anna puts it in "A Change of Climate": "In safety, there is danger. In tears, the awful slicing comic edge. In moments of kindness and laughter, the murderer's fist at the door."

Even those chilled by the persistent downbeat of Mantel's vision will surely be seduced by her sharp humor, reminiscent of Muriel Spark or Edna O'Brien, and her nail-biting narration in which ambiguous political and religious concerns are wrapped in the brisk plotting of a suspense thriller, a la Graham Greene or Brian Moore. (What is it about writers with a Roman Catholic background--Mantel was convent-educated in Northern England--that they seem to have a special knack for combining powerful narrative with philosophical speculation and humor?)

This blend of dark and light, comedy and tragedy, heart-in-the-mouth narrative and a slow-working analysis of the human condition, is nowhere more successfully displayed than in "Eight Months on Ghazzah Street" and "A Change of Climate." They are Mantel's third and sixth novels respectively (published in England in 1988 and 1994), now available in the United States, along with Mantel's most recent novel, "An Experiment in Love" (1995), published here last year to critical acclaim. Also available is "A Place of Greater Safety," a powerful historical novel about the French Revolution.

"Eight Months on Ghazzah Street" and "A Change of Climate" are aptly paired for their American debut. Each describes the tribulations of a young British couple who live respectively in Saudi Arabia and Africa. (Mantel lived with her geologist husband in Botswana for five years and in Saudi Arabia for four before returning to England in 1987). Both couples, though basically well-meaning, are motivated by selfish reasons: one to make money off the Saudi oil boom, the other out of an apparent missionary zeal that really covers the urge to escape domineering parents. A Western sense of entitlement to the blessings of liberty makes them ill-equipped to understand cultures more authoritarian than their own, and their thoughtless naivete is ultimately their downfall.

"A Change of Climate" weaves back and forth between the terrible past in Africa and the dreary present in Norfolk, England, where Ralph Eldred has inherited the family charitable trust whereby the couple continue their good works among the English rural poor, often taking depressed homemakers and drug-addicted teenagers into their own home when there is no room for them elsewhere. Bit by bit, we learn of the tragedy that beset Ralph and Anna in Africa and that they have kept secret from their four children "in the service of the great god Self-Control." Instead, they teach their children that there are only "Good Souls and Sad Cases," that the world has "no wickedness in it."

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