Thoughts: Mothering Sunday, by Graham Swift

I have my soft spots, like anyone, and one of my guiltiest ones is life in stately homes and fancy old estates, despite my dislike of the British class system. I also like quiet stories where not much happens, but at the same time, everything happens. It took everything in me not to inhale Mothering Sunday in one gulp. Not that I have anything against swallowing a book whole, just that my son would probably have something to say about me being emotionally unavailable for so long, if he was old enough to talk.

Short thoughts for short book today, though not because I didn’t enjoy it or because there isn’t anything to say about it. Some books are just like that, compact in your mind.

It’s the story of a young housemaid on Mothering Sunday in 1924, in a world of reduced house staff and war-dead sons, everything on the cusp of changing, if it hasn’t already begun to change – and Jane, too, our protagonist, will change on this particular Mothering Sunday.

All the reviews of this one mentioned how there wasn’t a single word out of place, and I can’t say they’re wrong. The writing isn’t spare, it’s actually quite lush, but every sentence is working hard. The day unfolds slowly, around many tangents into past and present, building up in scattershot paintstrokes, layer by layer, until a whole life is contained in it. But only one – we only get a view into Jane’s thoughts; everyone else is as she encounters them, their words and actions recalled as she recalls them but their motivations and secret thoughts are never revealed. We can only speculate along with Jane as to what and how much anyone knows about her own secret doings, why they do what they do.

The contrast between Jane’s lively, curious thoughts and her physical stillness and quietness, trained into her as a maid, is really nicely done, as is the atmosphere of the whole day – every empty room, every word anyone says, the moves they make. Ugh, it’s catnip to me. Wandering alone through a huge empty house. I just find them fascinating, these huge beautiful spaces, full of things built to last for generations, the luxury of it and the burden of it, the constant upkeep. It’s stupid but I think I’m more fascinated by houses and decor and the spaces in which other people live since I moved out for uni and suddenly realised I didn’t know how to be a person that way, how to decorate a living space. It says so much about who you are, and I don’t think I really know who I am even now. Now we’ve moved countries, and actually bought a place, and I’m even more nosy about how other people live. Mothering Sunday just really tapped into that for me.

Argh, I don’t want to say too much. It’s not a book for dissecting. I just want to sit with it for a while and think it over a few times.

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