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Book review: Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift

Novellas might be small, but they can certainly make a big impact. I haven’t read many of this form of novel, but the ones that I have read have been as memorable and moving as any full-length novel.

A couple of years ago, I read The Fish Girl by Mirandi Riwoe, and it was a gorgeous, haunting story that was perfectly suited to the form.

And more recently, I listened to Graham Swift’s Mothering Sunday on audiobook. In about four walks along the coast, I finished the story, and what a lovely, sad story it was.

Mothering Sunday takes place in England in 1924, on a day when mothers are traditionally honoured – house servants from across the UK spent the day with their families in a kind of pre-cursor to what we know as Mother’s Day.

However, as an orphan, the novel’s central character, Jane Fairchild has no one to visit. She has a rare day of respite from her duties as a maid to do whatever she likes. And it turns out that she spends a fateful morning with her lover, the son of her employer’s wealthy neighbour.

The scene is set luxuriously as Jane reclines in her lover’s bed, watching as he dresses to before heading off to meet his fiancé for lunch. There is a languor to Jane’s movements, and lack of movement, as she embraces this morning as if she knew the tragedy that was to come.

It is easy to inhabit Jane, and to imagine the day of freedom, her joy when summoned by her lover, and her shock when she discovers the day has not turned out as planned.

I was intrigued to read about the life of this domestic worker in the time just after World War I, when a generation of sons was lost. It is in the midst of this sadness that Jane’s freedom seems so heady, before it is brought to a swift halt by the events of the day.

This story is perfect for anyone who wants to start and finish a story quickly, getting swept away in its setting and atmosphere immediately. It is sensual, beautiful, and sad, and worth far more than the four hours it takes to read or listen to.

Mothering Sunday is available at Booktopia (Australia) and The Book Depository (UK or US).


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