Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift

Mothering Sunday by Graham SwiftI think (though I haven’t checked) that Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift might be the only novel written in 2016 that I read last year – I read a handful of non-fiction titles published last year, but no other novels are coming to mind. It was given to me by my dear friend Lorna, because she thought it sounded like my cup of tea. And she was right – I mean, it’s set in the 1920s, for starters.

More specifically, it is set on 30 March 1924 – guess which festival falls on that day? Yes, it’s Mothering Sunday – and clever, thoughtful Jane Fairchild is given the day off to visit her mother, like all servants up and down the land are doing. Only Jane is an orphan. She tells her master that she will spend the day reading, but instead cycles off for an afternoon of passion (if you will) with Paul Sheringham. He is a well-to-do man, friends with the Nivens, the family for whom Jane is a housemaid; he is also engaged, but is spending the time before he drives off to see his fiance having sex with our Jane.

This is sounding a bit tawdry, but Mothering Sunday is nothing of the sort. Yes, my 1920s mindset had to get to grips with the 2016 novel’s willingness to throw in explicit words of an anatomical nature – but this is not a morality tale, or even a tale of rebelling against morals. It’s more a beautifully written depiction of one significant afternoon in a girl’s life – told in the third person, but throwing in moments where the 90+ year old Jane is clearly looking backwards.

And secret love. And secret friend. He had said that once to her, ‘You are my friend, Jay.’ He had said it so announcingly. It had made her head go light. She had never been called that, named that thing so decisively by anyone, as if he were saying he had no other friend, he had only just discovered, in fact, what a friend might be. And she was to tell no one about this newly attested revelation.

It had made her head swim. She was seventeen. She had ceased to be a prostitute. Friend. It was better perhaps than lover. Not that ‘lover’ would have been then in her feasible vocabulary, or even in her thinking. But she would have lovers. In Oxford. She would have many of them, she would make a point of it. Though how many of them were friends?

Swift layers his story, giving hints of what is to come – both on that afternoon, and in the rest of Jane’s life – building up a narrative piece by subtle piece. For that reason, I shan’t give any spoilers. I was really impressed by the way he did this with a sort of rhythmical structure. It reminded me of a needle sewing through a fabric, but occasionally looping back a bit – or a piece of music, where motifs are repeated or alluded to now and then. The same phrases appear again and again, or variants on them; we are told something we already know so that the narrative can build on it a little, putting together a portrait incrementally. It’s very cleverly done – the sort of not-straightforward writing which isn’t showy or off-putting, but like waves on the shore coming in and out.

So, there you go; the prose is like sewing, music, and waves! Put together those images and you might get an idea of what the reading experience was like. Better yet, give it a try. It’s a slim novel, only 132pp in my edition, and occasionally it feels like a luxuriously extended short story – whatever it is, I really enjoyed reading it.

24 thoughts on “Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift

    • January 8, 2017 at 11:45 pm
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      He’s one of those names I’ve seen around for ages, but I would never have picked this up if I hadn’t got it as a gift.

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  • January 4, 2017 at 11:25 pm
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    It’s been too long since I read Swift, I shall get a copy of this. Thanks for an enticing review!

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    • January 8, 2017 at 11:45 pm
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      Oo, are there any others of his you recommend?

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  • January 4, 2017 at 11:32 pm
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    Lovey review. I bought a copy of this in October and actually read the first 25 pages or so. I just need a quiet moment to devote more brain power to read it because as you point out it is quite subtle. But I am looking forward to it!

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    • January 8, 2017 at 11:46 pm
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      Definitely requires some time to concentrate, yes! It turned out to be an excellent choice over Christmas.

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  • January 5, 2017 at 2:09 am
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    Oh, I loved Mothering Sunday! It was a delight to read your review and be reminded of the deep satisfaction I felt while reading it and for days thereafter.

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    • January 8, 2017 at 11:47 pm
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      Oh lovely :) Thanks for your comment!

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  • January 5, 2017 at 9:19 am
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    I have just read it and feel the same as you about the beautiful rhythm and the gathering layers, so delicately arranged. I couldn’t put it down.

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    • January 8, 2017 at 11:47 pm
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      It’s really impressive, isn’t it, Joanna? Such excellent craft.

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  • January 5, 2017 at 10:26 am
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    I am in the middle of reading this right now and you have nailed the sing-song, back and forth nature of the layered writing. It’s a lovely tale of a moment in time and it’s affects on a life. Never read any Swift before now, but I saw him at the Cheltenham Festival in October and he totally blew my mind -hence had to read this one. I’ll probably review it next week some time.

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    • January 8, 2017 at 11:48 pm
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      Thanks Sarah – and how wonderful to have seen him speak. If he comes to Oxford, I’ll make sure to go and see him.

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  • January 5, 2017 at 10:30 am
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    Excellent review, this is on my “If I see it I’ll pick it up” list in my head but I’ll actually look out for it properly now. I loved his one about some guys going to another guy’s funeral, which had a whole scene set down the road from where I was living at the time (but not so much I can recall the title, obvs).

    I think I read one novel published in 2016 last year, too.

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    • January 8, 2017 at 11:51 pm
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      Oo definitely one to look out for – thanks Liz.

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  • January 5, 2017 at 10:53 am
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    This was one of my favourite reads last year. You capture well the tone & mood of the writing.

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    • January 8, 2017 at 11:52 pm
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      Thank you! It was a very thought-provoking book.

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  • January 5, 2017 at 2:52 pm
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    Mothering Sunday was the most beautifully-written novel I read in 2016! It was also the first time I’d read Swift… now I want to read everything else he’s written. Wonderful review.

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    • January 8, 2017 at 11:53 pm
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      Thanks JoAnn! It’s great to know that this sort of thoughtful, beautifully-written novel can still exist in 2016, without issues and gimmicks.

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  • January 6, 2017 at 8:43 am
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    I need to read this book – but am waiting for the paperback. Lovely review.

    Caught you out though – you did read another book published in 2016 – You reviewed GFS’s Death in Profile for Shiny! :D

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    • January 8, 2017 at 11:55 pm
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      Well remembered, Annabel! And I’ve just recalled that I read Fell by Jenn Ashworth too – I apparently read more modern titles than I realise :)

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  • January 7, 2017 at 8:46 pm
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    Simon, you reviewed Mothering Sunday beautifully. I said “Yes!” aloud to your “It reminded me of a needle sewing through a fabric, but occasionally looping back a bit – or a piece of music, where motifs are repeated or alluded to now and then.”

    One note: I prefer the cover illustration of the UK edition of Mothering Sunday to my New York edition from a friend. If I particularly love a book, I’m tempted to repurchase it with the better cover. Frivolous expenditure, but infrequent. I wonder if anyone else has this aesthetic (?) problem.

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    • January 8, 2017 at 11:57 pm
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      Such a lovely comment, Susan, thank you!

      And, without my Project 24 hat on, I’d say that that is a very good reason for buying another copy. I’ve certainly replaced books I like with nicer editions – though usually just older/different ones I find, rather than US/UK differences.

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      • January 11, 2017 at 6:01 am
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        Some of my favorites are Margery Sharp covers – irresistable.

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