Tuesday, April 19, 2016
Mothering Sunday: A Romance by Graham Swift
This delicious short novel is in many ways a Mother’s Day dream. It is a novel short enough to be read in a long, lazy afternoon; it is a novel for mature audiences, weathered in relationships and outcomes, who bring a kind of life knowledge to one remarkable spring day in 1924 when sunlight poured over yellow and green fields and not a smudge marred the bright blue of the sky. In March a day like June, warm and golden, pregnant with potential and possibility. The strange undercurrent of foreboding that springs unbidden feels like something we bring as we recall in some remembered way the lovemaking in the big house empty in the afternoon with the windows opened wide to streaming sunlight and perhaps a breeze: “the sunlight applauded their nakedness.” A young scion and the maid…
He says they were “friends.” He did treat her as a friend—exactly as a friend. Their lovemaking was like a sport. He did not talk of the future…there was no need. He needn’t say goodbye, since it wasn’t goodbye was it? He would marry, but perhaps they would continue their “friendship” long after. One doesn’t lose one’s friends when one gets married. Not necessarily. Our judgement makes us uncomfortable, but we’d be wrong. The foreboding won’t point to that at all. The lovemaking was the maid’s liberation, not her downfall. She learned to be comfortable in herself there.
Swift shows his mastery of the form in this novel, telling us pieces of backstory interspersed with conversation and movement…a phone call bidding the maid, fragrant air filled with light and birdsong, a bike ride past still-leafless trees casting skeleton shade on new green and buds ready to open. We will never forget the day, so rare and so precious. Mothering Day. The staff are off to visit their own parents and the scion is preparing for his wedding in a fortnight to the daughter of a wealthy family. His own parents lost two sons in the last war and he is the last of the brood. This is usually a day of remembrance, but it is such an unusual day, coming as it does a fortnight before a wedding…
The beauty of the day suffuses the story and works its magic on us, despite our reservations. We are unprepared, then, for the foreboding to manifest when it does, finally. And we are unprepared also for the “long course of history” that plays out from the maid’s point of view—how this day will remain in her memory forever and what it meant to her life’s work. It raises questions about the nature and role of fiction and how one gets to the place where fiction can be truth. True things can be imagined, just as fiction can spring from truth. Sometimes fiction might even get closer to truth than real life, getting as it does “to the quick, the heart, the nub, the pith.” That is the trade of fiction, the “trade of truth-telling…It was about being true to the very stuff of life, it was about trying to capture, though you never could, the very feel of being alive.” And that is what what this book does. It feels lived.
I hope it is not too late for everyone to buy this gem of a novel before Mother’s Day. It is a real gift. And if anyone knows what body part is pictured on the dust jacket of the American edition, please let me know. I have meditated on it for days, and am still unable to make a guess.
You can buy this book here: Tweet