REVIEW: Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift

In brief: Jane reflects on the events of Mothering Sunday 1924, a day that changed her life from servant to writer.

The good: As always, Swift writes beautifully.

The not-so-good: It’s a slim read.

Why I chose it: I hadn’t read it and I really should have.

Year: 2016

Pages: 149

Publisher: Scribner (Simon & Schuster)

Setting: England

Rating: 9 out of 10

Graham Swift has a wonderful way with words, creating characters and scenarios artfully from just the minimum. Over the course of Mothering Sunday, he reveals how one day shaped the life of Jane Fairchild, gradually revealing the rest of her life in this novella.

On the exceptionally warm and sunny day in March, Jane is a servant for the Nivens, a couple who lost their sons during the Great War. Mothering Sunday is a ‘day off’ (post breakfast and before dinner) for the servants, an opportunity to visit their own mothers. For Jane, that’s not possible as she’s an orphan. Her plans are to find somewhere quiet and sunny and read one of the books from the Niven’s library (with permission of course, Mr Niven is supportive of Jane’s reading). But a phone call to the house beckons her to ride to her lover’s house, where he is alone. Paul is about to marry someone else, and Jane is not quite sad, not quite envious. She’s curious as to what Paul’s fiancé Emma is like and fairly accepting of the class differences between them. Afterwards, Paul must meet his fiancé for lunch but tells Jane to stay in the house as long as she likes. Big houses don’t really hold an allure for her, so she returns to the Nivens early, only to meet Mr Niven. A shocking thing has happened, and knocks both of them for six. In a way, this defines a turning point in Jane’s life and sets her towards becoming a writer.

Jane’s future is gradually revealed over the course of the novel, first via a sentence here and there until it takes over the last part of the novella. It’s in contrast to the slow, lazy morning of that day and its shocking conclusion. Piecing together Jane’s life over the novel was fun, as was languishing over each of Swift’s sentences. He captures the melancholy post-war as well as the change in the air as the end draws near for big houses and servants. It’s beautifully constructed, creating emotion through experience of one woman’s eyes. This is the kind of novel that makes a reader’s heart sing.

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