BOOK / Ralph among the hot water bottles: Sue Gaisford meets Hilary Mantel, whose new book wonders how to do the decent thing

In 1976 two women were talking at a bus-stop about a recent spate of vandalism at the youth-club. One said: 'They stole my skeleton, you know,' and the other replied: 'Good job it wasn't a full-sized one.' By sheer good fortune, Hilary Mantel was listening and from this overheard, gnomic exchange grew her second novel, Vacant Possession. That's how it happens with her. Some little trigger is pulled, she starts with a bit of a story and works away on what it's all about: a novel appears.

Her new book, A Change of Climate (Viking, pounds 15) began with another eavesdropping. It was 'one of those mundane, everyday tales of a man who'd gone off the rails in mid-life and left his family. So you think why? - and you realise that a chain of events lies behind it, and then everything else that's been pre-occupying you for years tends to feed into it, and you write it.' Sounds easy, but the finished product is a work of exquisite craftsmanship that asks enormous questions. Carried along on the crest of her elegant style, which combines an astringent wit with compassionate understanding and the narrative tension to banish sleep, the reader gradually realises the book turns on the issue of how little we are in control of our lives, how much at the mercy of forces outside ourselves.

It is about Ralph Eldred, a good man who tries to do the decent thing. His East Anglian family are evangelical fundamentalists who see 'no need to enquire into God's nature; they approached Him through early rising, Bible study and earnest, futile attempts at humility'. When Ralph appals them by developing an interest in geology and evolutionary theory, his mother confronts him with 'that frayed sigh that only mothers can perform' in a successful, wicked ploy, whereby his sister will be allowed to study medicine only if Ralph drops his own ambitions and goes instead to Africa, with his new bride, to run a mission.

That nasty bit of blackmail is the first of four secrets in the story. The jealous guarding of these secrets, or their attempted suppression, leads to a destructive misery that threatens to overwhelm Ralph, his wife Nina, their children and the people they love. Sorry if this sounds unduly mysterious, but to reveal more of the plot would be to deprive you of the pleasure of picking up the little clues and hints dropped artfully through the text, from Anna's determined, excessive, scrubbing of a bloodstained floor near the beginning, to her son, Julian's, reading of a tombstone near the end.

This tombstone is a real one, set in the floor of a small Norfolk church. It commemorates Frances Hibgame, 'who died 19th of December 1736 aged 10 yeares, 5 months, 2 weekes and 1 day'. Hilary Mantel came upon it by chance, and it gave her just the exemplum she needed for Julian to be shown how much people have always loved their children, whatever conventional wisdom dictates. She smiles, remembering the day she discovered it, because it illustrates so neatly what might be called serendipity, or her own chaos theory: that we never know where things will lead. She could so easily have stopped at another of those tiny churches and never found a way of enlightening Julian.

She is a warm, humorous woman with beautiful wide, clear blue eyes. Her voice carries a touch of Derbyshire where she was born, and where she set her very funny and successful novel Fludd; but she lives now beside a large common in Berkshire. When she was first married, she went with her husband, a geologist, on an aid project to Botswana, an experience that gives a real authenticity to the African scenes in the new book.

They lived through some harrowing experiences there, but, like Ralph and Anna, found that there was no difficulty in not talking about them when they came back. 'People just didn't want to know. You'd want to tell them about the night you crashed your car, alone in the bush, about the day the dog was deliberately poisoned, the night the housemaid was raped, but all they'd say is 'Been away again?'. Your life has acquired a huge, operatic dimension, but they are just happily humming along to Top of the Pops.'

Some, of the shocking events in the book happened to her, others she learned about from African law reports or friends - 'I knew someone who was stabbed by a burglar. He said he felt a big heavy blow, not a cut, and it didn't really hurt, but he lay on the floor, certain that he was dying, not wanting to be disturbed - it's very useful to have friends who've been stabbed.' Either way, Mantel writes about these things with a conviction that keeps you reading even as your hands shake.

Her hero Ralph returns to Norfolk. It is 1980, and the window of Boots the Chemist boasts a 'razzmatazz of vitamin supplements and glucose tablets, a come-and-get- em pyramid of Kodak films and an alluring display of hot-water bottles'. He fills their draughty house with a succession of lonely inadequate refugees from psychiatric hospitals and orphanages, known to his children as Sad Cases. He administers the family trust and occupies his days with a succession of small good works. Hilary Mantel is not particularly pleased at the suggestion that this is how Dorothea lives out her life, commendably, at the end of Middlemarch. But then she admits to loathing George Eliot, having had to teach Silas Marner to African children. 'Mind you, they had a good deal of sympathy with her moralistic attitude. They sorted out Molly Farren as if she were a Botswana teenager - 'Well look, Madam, this is the way of it: you start off going to a beer-drink, then you're smoking dagga, then the next she'd be on this laudanum business - should never have gone on the beer-drink'. They thought Eliot was quite right to terminate her existence.'

Anyway, Ralph's good works are not enough. All they do is to prevent him from having to face the really big question: why did God let terrible things happen to me? A line from the Book of Job, quoted at the start of the novel, points in the same direction. Hilary Mantel mentions Muriel Spark's book The Only Problem. The only problem, she says, is no less than the whole problem of human suffering. Can God be all good and yet all-powerful? Or, as Ralph's Uncle James puts it, if it is chance, can it be malign? If it is malign, can it be chance? 'I could write about this to the end of my life,' she says, 'whether - how far - in the face of suffering, one can maintain faith in a benign deity. I suppose in a way I wrote the book to find out if I believed in God. I didn't find out. I'm still in a fog. But I told a story and I've been able to look at some of the dilemmas. I think, as an author, it's your job to keep asking questions and to create a climate in which people are thinking about these things.'

I liked Ralph, and so does his creator. His integrity, kindness, courage, his dogged determination to do his best must surely be admirable? But no, she is a little dismayed to learn that the men who have read this book loathe him, to a man. They see him as a wimp. Even her husband? Well, yes. But then, he must be a manly man. On their bookshelves is his vast collection of rare, early, unbowdlerised Biggles books, where the hero drinks, smokes and cusses with carefree abandon. Mind you, the later, over- corrected ones are fun too. In one of them, Mantel recalled, Biggles, accompanied by Ginger, lands his little plane in the Yukon. Together they swing into a saloon full of desperate prospectors. Biggles bangs his fist on the bar and demands a Bovril for himself, and a malted milk for Ginger.

She's very funny about macho men. 'I'm sure they do have imagination and sensitivity and a whole range of good qualities: it's just - from day to day - where do they keep them?' Her next novel will tell us what she really thinks about feminism. She hates the Mrs Thatcher model, where women become pseudo-men and take on their worst characteristics, but she does quietly worry about what happens to all the bright girls, why they make so little of their lives.

When she was a child, Hilary Mantel's favourite writers were Robert Louis Stevenson and Charlotte Bronte. Thinking about them now, she muses: 'If you could combine the sheer momentum of Kidnapped with the psychological acuity of Jane Eyre, wouldn't you have the perfect book?' Few novelists today come as close to it as she does.

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Hell, yeah: members of the 369th Infantry arrive back in New York
booksWorld War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
    World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

    Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

    The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
    Why the league system no longer measures up

    League system no longer measures up

    Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
    Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

    Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

    Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
    Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness