BOOK REVIEW: MOTHERING SUNDAY

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Mothering Sunday: A Romance
By Graham Swift
Out 25th February from Scribner (S&S); £12.99 hardback

Graham Swift signals his intentions with a playful epigraph: “You shall go to the ball!” Then he begins, “Once upon a time,” but immediately undercuts the fairy tale mood with the qualifier, “before the boys were killed.” It’s only a third of the way into the opening sentence, and this reader is hooked like a fish.

Via close third person narration — with occasional authorial asides alluding to the future — we enter the mind of housemaid Jane Fairchild, who’s enjoying a long, lusty affair with the last living son from the neighbouring estate. His brothers and their two friends, the sons of Jane’s employers, were all wiped out in World War I.

Naked, sated, lingering, Jane and her lover eke out the minutes of their final encounter. He’s to marry and move to London in a fortnight. It is Mothering Sunday, 1924, when servants are “inconveniently” given the afternoon off — even Jane, a founding with no memories of either parent, is entitled to her afternoon.

Bathed by warm sunlight, Jane ponders the nature of intimacy, understanding that it’s not revealed in the carnal act, but in the languid peace that follows. Her body is at ease yet her mind is never still. Jane arrived at her job seven years earlier aged 16, “half educated” and innately clever. She borrows books from her employer’s library, attracted to “boys’” tales of adventure and derring-do. She is deferential on the job, but her mind remains her own and wanders far.

Jane thinks in stories. “Expressions had started to come to her.” Exploring language, she moves toward her destiny as slowly as a tortoise, but with the same intensity of purpose.

“One fragment of a life can’t be the all of it,” she thinks. It’s not. Swift teases us with titbits hinting at her future before filling us in: Jane’s life will span the century; she will have many lovers and a cherished husband; she will become someone journalists clamour to interview: a successful author with nineteen books to her credit.

Swift says of Jane: “She did not want to falsify — or nullify — anything by the folly of putting it in to words. And this, in her later life too, would come to be an abiding occupational conundrum.” She wonders about truth-telling, asking whether it isn’t the writer’s job to play with the truth on the page and during interviews. A writer’s mission, she decides, is “to capture. . . the very feeling of being alive.”

Mothering Sunday pulses with life. It’s a gem.

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