Strip everything away and this is just the story of a day in which a maid has her last tryst with the youngest, soon to be married son of an upper class Berkshire family. Oh, but it is the everything that makes this little book.
Within the story of that day and that tryst (so, adults only on this one, with a tolerance or taste for a bit of the naughty and a few crass terms) we are given a whole history, a picture of a time and a way of life. A bit of a transitional upstairs/downstairs between world wars, when traditions were held onto as the world was irrevocably changed and changing. British traditions like “Mothering Sunday,” one that I had no knowledge of, but it slowly came together for me in the first 30 or so pages.
When I found out that I had won a copy of this novella, I reread the synopsis and had winner’s remorse. Stories of affairs are not usually my cup of tea. But while some of the subject matter and content is not to my taste, it was redeemed and elevated by the writing, which I cannot adequately describe (or quote here, as I read an uncorrected proof).
This story, to me, was written with a bit of a cinematic hand. It had a feeling of the nostalgic glance backward, the thoughtfulness, the stillness, the brightness even in the most tragic moments, of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil, or of a Merchant & Ivory film. Indeed, the author leaves me wanting to rewatch those films and the Brideshead series and to delve into the novels that inspired them, to see where this feeling comes from and how it is evoked (and his main character, Jane Fairchild, left me wanting to read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness).
While the story is firmly set on one unseasonably warm day in May 1924, the narrative glides back in time and forward to when Jane is an 80 year old author, encompassing her present, future and past all with a sense of nostalgic melancholy. Again, I am thinking how interesting it would be to study, to discover the mechanics of how Swift did this – both the mood and the slippage of time.
I think I’ll be looking to see what Graham Swift’s back catalog might have in store for me (though I’ll be looking a bit closer at each synopsis before choosing my second Swift read).
Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift | Alfred A. Knopf, New York, April 19, 2016 | 192 pages
This review refers to an uncorrected proof of Mothering Sunday that I won in a GoodReads First Reads Giveaway, courtesy of the publisher. While not required, the First Reads program does encourage winners to post honest reviews.
Though I do see how the final cover reflects the nudity found in the book (Jane did wander about a bit), I hope the publisher does not mind my use of the uncorrected proof’s cover here.