Mak­ing the most of an up­side-down day

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Mal­colm Forbes

Gra­ham Swift fol­lows up his bravura 2014 story col­lec­tion Eng­land and Other Sto­ries by stay­ing in compact mode and de­liv­er­ing not a 10th novel but a novella. In some re­spects, Mothering Sun­day: A Ro­mance bears com­par­i­son with Ian McEwan’s On Ch­e­sil Beach. It is a short yet pow­er­ful and in­tri­cately lay­ered work about doomed love; it ar­rives af­ter a Booker Prize win and a more fa­mous, ca­reer-defin­ing novel (re­spec­tively Last Or­ders and Water­land for Swift, Am­s­ter­dam and Atone­ment for McEwan). It may not be Swift’s meati­est book, but with ev­ery sen­tence count­ing, and not a word out of place, it is his most per­fectly formed.

It is March 30, 1924, “what used to be known as Mothering Sun­day”. Jane Fairchild is a 22year-old house­maid who, like all ser­vants in Berk­shire, and in­deed the rest of the coun­try, is given the day off by her em­ploy­ers. Mr and Mrs Niven have been in­vited to lunch by their friends the Sher­ing­hams, to toast and dis­cuss the forth­com­ing wed­ding of their son Paul: “A jam­boree in Hen­ley,” Mr Niven ex­plains to Jane. “A meet­ing of the tribes.”

Nei­ther fam­ily is aware that Jane has also re- ceived an in­vi­ta­tion — from her il­licit lover of nearly eight years, Paul Sher­ing­ham. Mr Niven gives her half a crown and use of a bi­cy­cle, and, on this un­sea­son­ably warm day, she rides off to meet Paul in his fam­ily’s grand, empty house.

Swift re­veals more as Paul and Jane en­joy their in­ti­mate assig­na­tion. We hear how they came to­gether cau­tiously, aware of the wrong­ness of their re­la­tion­ship, and would snatch what furtive op­por­tu­ni­ties they could in “sta­bles, green­house, pot­ting shed, shrub­bery”. In time they learned to re­lax and laugh while “the whole world was in mourn­ing all around them”. Now they have be­come “ac­com­plished, un­fum­bling, se­ri­ous-faced ad­dicts”, not just se­cret lovers but se­cret friends — and just at the point when he is to be mar­ried off to a woman of his own class, Emma Hob­day.

Thus their erotic en­counter is also a bit­ter­sweet part­ing. Paul’s big day is in two weeks and Jane has been “get­ting ready to lose him”. Af­ter wash­ing and dress­ing, he says good­bye and in­structs her to lock up be­hind her. But Jane de­lays her de­par­ture and, tak­ing ad­van­tage of her fleet­ing free­dom, de­cides to roam the house naked. Feel­ing like part vis­i­tor, part voyeur, we ac­com­pany her on her tour of each room and her de­tours down mem­ory lane.

At two key points Swift halts Jane’s progress and in­ter­rupts her thoughts to de­liver a sur­prise and a shock: when she is in the li­brary, Swift in­forms us she is an avid reader who, in later life, will be­come a suc­cess­ful writer; and as a grand­fa­ther clock chimes two o’clock, Swift tells us: “She had not known he was al­ready dead.”

Like The Light of Day (2003), the main events of the book take place within a sin­gle day, al­beit an “up­side-down day” on which Jane is treated as a lady, or a day “turned in­side out”, which her­alds not the end of an af­fair but the be­gin­ning of the rest of her life. Swift shows her cy­cling away and learn­ing of Paul’s death; how­ever, he also veers off, out of the tragic present, to give us sneak glimpses of Jane the nov­el­ist.

Fic­tion is full of such fast-for­ward for­ays, but it is a dif­fi­cult feat to pull off: what should be a neat trick that throws up a fresh per­spec­tive can in­stead be a cheap gim­mick that of­fers only un- nec­es­sary di­ver­sions. But Swift han­dles the tem­po­ral shifts with aplomb and deftly fleshes Jane out, trans­form­ing her from an in­gen­u­ous maid with lim­ited prospects to a shrewd and am­bi­tious woman in charge of her own des­tiny.

As ever, Swift be­guiles and im­presses with de­tail and ideas. There are sharp, wry ref­er­ences to class (Paul is a “thor­ough­bred” like the fam­ily stal­lion; Jane has the red knuck­les and worn­down nails of her “kind”) and il­lu­mi­nat­ing med­i­ta­tions on Jane’s fu­ture pro­fes­sion, in­clud­ing the art of sto­ry­telling, the “in­con­stancy of words” and the in­spi­ra­tional magic of Joseph Con­rad.

Per­vad­ing the whole book is a wist­ful evanes­cence: pass­ing eras, wan­ing tra­di­tions, whit­tled down fam­i­lies. Cars have re­placed horses. Paul’s two brothers and Mr Niven’s two sons went off to France to fight and never re­turned. Mothering Sun­day is “a rit­ual al­ready fad­ing”. Paul and Jane make the most of their “last day”. When Swift pro­vides a flash­back it is in­vari­ably to a sun­nier, calmer time with a fuller house­hold and fewer com­pli­ca­tions.

At the end, an older Jane ex­plains that fic­tion-writ­ing is, con­versely, truth-telling — “get­ting to the quick, the heart, the nub, the pith”. We be­lieve her, be­cause that is pre­cisely what her cre­ator has done through­out this en­gag­ing and ex­quis­ite book.

is an Ed­in­burgh-based critic.

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