The Eldred's are compliant people - particularly Ralph, a man of good intentions who works for the family charitable trust providing necessities, such as food, clothing and shelter for those less fortunate. As a Christian, Ralph believes in service, so compassionate that he cannot turn away from those in need. But for their brief years in Africa and the immeasurable tragedy they suffer on the Dark Continent, the Eldred's personify the spirit of missionary life.
Residing in England now, still providing for the downtrodden, Anna and Ralph live out a self-effacing routine of tending to those less fortunate. Ralph hopes no one will mistake him for the kind of man who loves mankind in general, but not particular people. But this is exactly how he is perceived, soldiering on for over twenty years after the tragedy, burying himself in the mundane trivia of everyday obligations. His care for others is driven, endless virtue in hope of an atonement that can never be realized.
It is Anna who suffers for Ralph’s neglect, the broken part deeply buried, a constant ache that must be endured, her own survival defined by the constant needs of her four children. Anna has paid a terrible price for her silence all these years, one even she is unaware of. As their eldest children prepare to leave the family nest, Ralph grows more distant and preoccupied, Anna more edgy. Neither expects the emotional eruption that occurs when Ralph falls into a romantic dalliance with a local woman.
Mantel is an extraordinarily gifted writer, dissecting the motivations of her characters with precision, particularly their great missionary hubris, the vagrant self-congratulatory thoughts that creep into even the most well-meant acts as the couple seeks to bury the past under the weight of the present. With a steady tension, the author builds layer upon layer, creating a structure that appears sturdy but ultimately collapses under the weight of grief and silence.
The Eldred’s are burdened by their choices, the years of self-denial, their lives of unremitting charity and the inability to make peace with the great blow Africa dealt their family. How or if they will recover will be determined, after all, by their spiritual strengths and human weaknesses, that delicate balance between expectations and reality to survive in the real world.