Mothering Sunday is both a dissection of the nature of fiction and a gripping story; a private catastrophe played out in the quiet drawing rooms of the English upper middle-class, the drama that unfolds is all the more potent for its containment ... Mothering Sunday is bathed in light; and even when tragedy strikes, it blazes irresistibly. Its sustained note is one of exultation, at the writer’s ruthless impulse to grind up disaster and move on. Jane may be the motherless maidservant and Paul the carelessly privileged heir, but as she rises from their bed in the wake of his departure, walks naked through his grand empty house and begins to exercise her novelist’s entitlement – to watch, to observe, to describe and to transcend her circumstances – the balance of power shifts momentously in her favour and Swift’s small fiction feels like a masterpiece.
Mr. Swift makes little nods and bows to Downton Abbey, Upstairs, Downstairs, as well as Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day and Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach. But Sunday wears such borrowings lightly. As a result, it feels less self-consciously literary than Mr. Swift’s earlier novels, and while it has a haunting, ceremonious pace, it also possesses a new emotional intensity.
While more streamlined and elliptical than Swift's earlier novels, Mothering Sunday builds in complexity with its layering of revelations and memories over time. More than just a story about crossing 'impossible barriers' like class and education, it is a love song to books, and to finding words, language, and a voice. It is about this remarkably self-possessed woman's ability to regard the "clean sheet" she was given at birth, free from pedigree or history, as an 'innate license to invent' — and a dead-end affair as a gateway to 'untethered' possibility.
Next to Swift’s previous novels, such as Last Orders or his emotionally devastating Wish You Were Here, Mothering Sunday feels elliptical, even minor. But it’s an elegant reflection on the impulse to tell stories. For Jane, he writes, 'it would always be the task of getting to the quick, the heart, the nub, the pith: the trade of truth-telling.' Surely, Swift is describing himself, too.
Mothering Sunday is simultaneously timely and timelessly subversive and provocative ... strikingly, vitally modern and relevant in its quietly gut-wrenching portrayal of the chasm of class and its repercussions on individuals and societies...Without a hint of political correctness or sanctimoniousness, the book acknowledges the inevitability of infiltration between classes, the fact that segregation can never be absolute ... Graham Swift is masterful in evoking the ways class can be used by two people engaged in an intimate affair, to conceal from themselves, as well as each other, that they are in love.
Instead of treating 1924 as a simple or sequestered age, a prelude to our present, [Swift] uses it as a vantage-point to reveal how much had already changed. In the world of the novel, 1924 is the modern age ... At the narrative level, Mothering Sunday has a lot in common with earlier works of historical fiction — Ian McEwan’s pair of novels about a moment that resonates across the decades, Atonement and On Chesil Beach...But Swift is even more self-conscious than those writers, and Mothering Sunday is borne along by a rigorous approach to nostalgia and mythologising that borders at times on the obsessive ... The novel is at once a historical portrait and a kind of essay about historical portraiture; at once an elegy and a warning against elegy ... By abandoning the thriller mechanics he treasured for so long, Swift has written a book that is not just his most moving and intricate but his most engrossing too.
Swift describes events long in the past in a way that gives them intense and permanent presentness ... Historical novels are most compelling when they say something about the present as well as the past. Swift shows that the elegance and lyricism of high modernist writing still has value for contemporary fiction, but the book is inconclusive and vague. I wasn’t sure why it was a novella, since Swift’s style and themes are so weighty, but the lush, sorrowful prose gives considerable pleasure.
Mothering Sunday could be also subtitled 'an origin story,' as it eloquently accounts for the beginning of a vocation, and the re-beginning of an individual. It can be read in a sitting or two, and could make your day.
The first few chapters were interesting, but not grabbing. Until about 30 pages in, I was on the verge of giving up. And then I caught the rhythm of the book and fell into it. And the rest: compelling and beautifully written ... Written by an author clearly enthralled with the magic and the power of words, it is a story of a character who is also enthralled with words.