BOOK REVIEW / Evil weathered under African skies: 'A Change of Climate' - Hilary Mantel: Viking, 15 pounds

ON A BUS the other day I overheard two women talking about a mutual acquaintance. 'I like Louise,' one said, 'but there is an Anita Brookner side to her, if you know what I mean.' It was clear from the other woman's reaction that she did indeed know. One can think of other writers whose names might be used in this way, but Hilary Mantel is not among them, for the simple reason that her output is so diverse. From the early Muriel Sparkish comedies to the nightmarish paranoia of her Saudi thriller Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, from the folk-tale magic realism of Fludd to the epic scope of A Place of Greater Safety, Mantel's work is consistent only for its quality. In a world of aspirant auteurs, she remains an ambitious, unpredictable but self-effacing metteur en scene.

But although her books could hardly be more different in setting and treatment, certain themes naggingly recur, notably various aspects of the problem of evil. This is a large issue (almost indecently large, some might say) and hitherto Mantel has approached it obliquely, subtextually. In A Change of Climate, her most uncompromising novel to date, she tackles the subject head-on.

It begins deceptively, with a scene almost reminiscent of an Aga saga: a man's wife and mistress meet at his funeral. But deception, both narrative and moral, lies coiled at the heart of a book whose dark secret is prefigured on the second page, yet in a way that is only apparent on re-reading. Meanwhile we are introduced, with all Mantel's habitual skill, to Ralph and Anna Elsted, their children, relatives and the transient population of 'visitors' to their large, dilapidated house in rural Norfolk. These visitors are drug addicts, homeless kids, suicidal bag-ladies and borderline psychiatric patients, waifs and strays brought home by Ralph in his capacity as director of a religious charitable trust, their whims, fits, incivilities and crimes endlessly indulged by Anna and, more reluctantly, by their children. On the face of it, the Elsteds are simply a couple of selfless Christian do- gooders, admirable rather than interesting.

We are then taken behind the scenes, via a dream sequence which is one of the few clumsy devices in an otherwise consummately accomplished text, to witness Ralph's upbringing at the hands of a fundamentalist patriarch who blackmails him into renouncing his ambition to become a geologist because 'Darwinism equals atheism'. His will broken, Ralph leaves with his young wife Anna to run a church-funded mission house in a South African township.

It is the Fifties, just after the passage of the Bantu Education Act which imposed illiteracy on the entire non-white population. When Ralph, who believes in social progress and 'the complex perfectibility of the human heart', discusses the situation with the local archbishop it looks for a moment as though we might be in for another horrors-of-apartheid novel. In fact, the account of the Eldreds' brutal introduction to the facts of life in South Africa is a tour de force. Hilary Mantel's descriptive writing is not showy or phrase-making; she works by accumulation, compiling precisely observed details which read like lived experience. Her decent young couple's gradual awakening to the cynical brutality of Verwoerd's regime is unflinchingly described, but she does not make the mistake of sugaring the pill by sentimentalising the blacks. The result is a statement of complex realities that is

as convincing in its way as Rian Malan's My Traitor's Heart.

In due course the Eldreds are arrested by the security police and sent to prison - a breathtakingly fresh re-creation of a hackneyed scene - before being deported to Bechuanaland. By cutting back to the present, Mantel cunningly delays the revelation of the horror which overtakes them there, while pursuing the effects on their later life, as their children begin to prise open the secret which has insidiously conditioned their lives. There are moments here which come perilously close to melodrama - 'Robin shivered, not from cold' - but part of Mantel's strength is that she is not afraid of stock effects. When the long-delayed climax arrives and primal evil shatters all the Eldreds' civilised certainties, it is on a Dark and Stormy Night, but the shock and terror are undiminished.

More problematic is the last quarter of the book, in which Mantel tries rather too hard to draw parallels and make symbolic restitutions: for instance, her attempt to pair the murderous betrayal in Africa, which destroyed Anna's life, with an adulterous affair on which her husband now embarks - seemingly more as a service to a novel whose loose ends need tying up than to any discernible impulses in him.

Nevertheless, this is a brave attempt to tackle issues central to our lives but disturbingly peripheral to much of our literature. As Fludd observes in Mantel's earlier novel: 'Taking the long view . . . people do get what they want in life. There is a hidden principle of equity in operation. The frightening thing is that life is fair; but what we need, as someone has already observed, is not justice but mercy.'

(Photograph omitted)