The Booker Prize-winning author Graham Swift returns with a slim but powerful new novel. It’s subtle, intimate, and heartbreaking, says Drew Schwartz.

Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift

In a mansion she should not have entered, in a sun-soaked bedroom where she should not be lying, naked, next to a lover she should not have, Jane Fairchild watches a trail of smoke from her cigarette float to the ceiling. It mingles, slowly, with another—with his. Once the thin, pale streams have merged, you can’t tell which came from who. But the two young lovers couldn’t be more different.

The year is 1924. Paul Sheringham belongs to England’s old-money aristocracy, the son of wealthy parents—a little less wealthy in England’s struggling post-war economy. Jane, orphaned at birth, works as a maid for an upper-class family living near the Sheringhams’ estate. They’ve been having an affair for years, convening in bushes, stables, garden paths—anywhere they can meet without being detected. Now, on Mothering Sunday, when every house for miles is conveniently empty, they are together in Paul’s bed for the first time. With his arranged marriage to another woman just two weeks away, they both know it will also be the last.

 

"In examining Jane’s fears and her joys, her dreams and her dreads, Swift captures­—in all its complexity—what it means to love someone you know will hurt you."

 

Nearly half of Graham Swift’s intimate, heartbreaking, remarkably brief novel Mothering Sunday takes place in this bedroom. Little is said. Nothing much happens. And it is gripping.

Swift opens a window into Jane’s mind and lets us peer inside, discovering a clever, deeply-feeling young girl who longs for her forbidden romance to continue indefinitely, but knows and accepts that it cannot. We learn that Paul is a quiet, impossibly poised “stallion” disillusioned with the high-society world he’s been born into. Swift, a master of restraint and loaded description who won the Booker for his subtly wrought Last Orders, doesn’t simply hand us this information. Much of the joy of reading his novel lies in sifting through subtext, and slowly uncovering the layers of meaning he’s sown for us.

In examining Jane’s fears and her joys, her dreams and her dreads, Swift captures­—in all its complexity—what it means to love someone you know will hurt you. But Mothering Sunday is about more than that. It is about every unrealized future, about “all the scenes that never occur, but wait in the wings of possibility.” 

 

“He compresses decades of family history into a single paragraph, and stretches seconds into what feel like hours.”

 

The novel’s present is confined to a single day; however, Swift—a master of manipulating time—navigates nearly 100 years in just 132 pages. He compresses decades of family history into a single paragraph, and stretches seconds into what feel like hours. In doing so, he allows us to experience how gruelling it might be, for example, for Jane to watch Paul dress himself in his Sunday best, painstakingly slowly, before heading off to lunch with his posh fiancée.

Graham Swift
Image courtesy of Picador

We also see Jane at work for her masters, the Nivens—just one opportunity Swift takes to explore the inner workings of a maid’s life in the early 20th century. He’s done his research, and it shows. His descriptions of “being both invisible yet indispensably at hand” feel authentic, bringing Jane and the hidden world of the servant vividly to life.  

After he skips, gracefully, over Jane and Paul’s sexual encounter (yes, this is a romance, but not that kind of romance) and immerses us in the intimate haven that is Paul’s bedroom, Swift leaps forward in time to show us what’s become of the protagonist at the tail-end of her life. Following her early infatuation with boys’ adventure stories, Jane continues to read voraciously, ultimately becoming a famed, bestselling author. It’s here that Swift adds another layer of meaning to his tale; the novel becomes not just about Jane’s story, but also the stories she tells—both to herself and to the world. In effect, it becomes a meditation on, as Joan Didion famously stated, the stories we all tell ourselves in order to live.

Perhaps, despite Jane’s rough upbringing as an orphan, it was best she was abandoned at an early age; otherwise, “could she have had the life she didn’t yet know she was going to have? Could her mother have known, making her dreadful choice, how she had blessed her?”

The question calls Swift’s refrain back into mind: “All the scenes. All the scenes that never occur, but wait in the wings of possibility.” It’s a thought we’ve all had, at one time or another.

For as ambitious and far-reaching as Swift’s novel is, it’s also a breeze to read. It’s written as a single chapter, and—as per usual—Swift propels us through it with simple, taut, crisp prose. Not to say his writing isn’t elegant; he drops decidedly “literary,” resonant pronouncements throughout that will floor you, and force you to step away from the page for a moment as you soak them in.

What results is a touching, profound and—above all—intimate portrayal of a relationship from the perspective of the woman whom it indelibly changed. If you’ve loved and lost, you’re bound to rediscover familiar feelings, put into phrases you seem to have been waiting for all your life; and on the off chance you haven’t, by the novel’s end, it certainly won’t feel that way.

Mothering Sunday is one of our Editor’s Picks this month. Browse the full list.

You can buy Mothering Sunday in our online bookshop

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