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April 28, 1998

Books by Kay Kimbrough

Hilary Mantel
Henry Holt, Owl Book, 1997, $12.00.

Mantel's latest novel deals with the problems of good and evil in the lives of ordinary people, who, like most ordinary people, are faced with extra-ordinary dilemmas throughout their lives. Ralph and Anna married in 1956, when both were in their twenties. Their backgrounds are similar: both are products of middle-class English families whose lives center around the church and its charities; both families cultivated an emotional climate that was cold, rational, and repressive; and both sets of parents thought it their Christian duty to control their children's lives from the cradle to the grave.

Ralph's father is horrified to learn that his son has a passionate desire to study geology and that he accepts the theory of evolution. Although Ralph insists that he sees no contradiction in belief in the Christian God and the theory of evolution, his father scorns the idea. Ralph tells his father that he believes from choice, and his father is "revolted." "Where did you get that stupid idea from?" he asks Ralph. When Ralph tells him he thought of it himself, his father replies that Ralph's pride and beliefs will "kill" him. A chilling silence settles on the family until Ralph's mother tells him that his sister will not be allowed to study medicine if Ralph does not do as his father wants. Ralph is defeated by reluctance to be the cause of his sister's loss of opportunity. He does as his father wants and becomes a dutiful do-gooder, if not a clergyman.

Anna is the daughter of solid shopkeepers who provide an equally inadequate amount of emotional support while giving generously to the church's causes. She finally realizes at some point that her parents are not as charitable as they appear: she realizes that they are snobs, giving credit to the rich while denying it to those who need it most. They are pleased when she plans to marry Ralph because his parents have some standing in the county of Norfolk. Anna also suspects that her parents are "glad to have her off their hands."

Ralph and Anna find positions as teachers of Anglican ministers in training at Dar es Salaam through the influence of Ralph's Uncle James, an Anglican missionary in Zanzibar. Before they can start their work, they are offered a mission in Johannesburg. They readily accept, not realizing the risks involved in running a mission under the cloud of apartheid. They eventually have to leave their mission, thinking they have witnessed the ultimate evil. They relocate at another mission at a remote place in the heart of Africa. There they meet evil face to face, an evil so damaging to them that they never speak of what happens there again.

Back in Norfolk Ralph runs a foundation set up by his father to help people. They live in the Red House with their four children and what "Good Souls and Sad Cases" come their way in need of shelter. The novel opens with the funeral of Felix, the married lover of Ralph's sister Emma. Ralph is shocked to learn of their relationship, which everyone else knew about, even Felix's wife Ginny. The problem of adultery opens and closes the novel, dramatized by Emma. No answers are provided to the questions adultery poses. Emma, a confessed atheist, does pray at a shrine for her brother and his family early in the novel, and her return to the shrine ends the novel. Here she says to herself, "Pray for Felix...Pray for Ginny. Pray for me." She does not reveal any thought or analysis of her state of mind, but the description of the landscape suggests that she has had a change of heart. "The cloud had thinned, and as she walked the sun showed itself, fuzzy and whitish-yellow, like a lamp behind a veil." This sentence ends the novel.

What happens between 1956 and the novel's end is that Ralph and Anna change even more than Emma. They have been living half-lives, repressing the memory of what happened in Africa, mechanically doing good, and being as dutiful as their parents. Finally, Anna's resentment and bitterness are brought to the surface, and finally Ralph breaks through his own barrier erected by his ego, and the reader assumes that they can begin to live. Ralph realizes, as he responds to a desperate child, that his good deeds in the past have been motivated by "that spirit of competition in goodness that had animated his life." Anna also responds to the child, whose care she had earlier assumed for Ralph's sake, because he asked her to. Now, they seem to understand that goodness cannot be forced out of the good people for the betterment of Sad Cases and Good Souls, but that those in need have the right to ask for help when they are ready for it. Shocking events have put them into a state of numbness, and shocking events bring them back to life.

Mantel's story is also the story of a family and how it evolves through time. There is tragedy in the family history, but there is hope for the future.

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