Category Archives: Scribner

Mothering Sunday – Graham Swift

As it is Mother’s Day here in the UK my original plan was to try and squeeze in a reading of a new translation of The Iliad so I could surprise my mother by reading one of the great classics and making her proud. However, with work events on most evenings and my probation last week (which I passed, phew) it was not the time to read a tome. Instead I plumped for the latest offering from Graham Swift, who I had yet to try though my mother is a huge fan of, which had the apt title of Mothering Sunday. Well it turns out this isn’t about a mother on a Sunday at all, though might be nice to treat your mother to that she can read on a Sunday if she isn’t averse to some mild saucy shenanigans and possibly having a small emotional weep or two…

9781471155239

Scribner UK, hardback, 2016, fiction, 136 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

It was March 1924. It wasn’t June, but it was a day like June. And it must have been a little after noon. A window was flung open, and he walked, unclad, across the sun-filled room as carelessly as any unclad animal. It was his room, wasn’t it? He could do what he liked in it. He clearly could. And she had never been in it before, and never would again.
And she was naked too.
March 30th 1924. Once upon a time.

Mothering Sunday throws us straight into the life of Jane Fairchild on a day that will have a lasting effect on her life forever. As we soon learn Jane, a young woman of 22, is a maid who is having a rather illicit affair with one of the heir’s to the Sheringham family mansion next door to her employers the Nivens. Not just an heir but a soon to be married one, very soon, as the impending nuptials are mere weeks away. Jane knows herself that this cannot last and something in the air tells her (whilst something in the prose tells us) that this relationship is about to come to an end.

Graham Swift cleverly gives us this tale from Jane’s narrative both at the time and then in her nineties able to look on it with hindsight whilst also still reliving the emotions of the time. This was one of the many wonderful things that I thought Swift did in this novella-cum-novel (I never know the rule that officially makes a work one or the other!) because it gives a certain fascinating duality and sense of perceptions to one story. On the one hand we have the older, seemingly wiser, Jane and then on the other we have a young maid, clearly smitten yet also thinking about love, sexuality, class, sense of self and much more.

She supposed that, most of the time, Mr Niven would ‘undo’ Mrs Niven, if she couldn’t undo herself. What a word – ‘undo!’ She supposed that Mrs Niven might now and then say, ‘Undo me, Godfrey,’ in a different way to how she might say it to her maid. Or that Mr Niven might sometimes say in a different way still, ‘Can I undo you, Clarrie?’
She supposed that Mr and Mrs Niven might still, now and then… even though some eight years ago they lost two ‘brave boys’. But she did not suppose. She occasionally saw the evidence. She changed the sheets.

I am quite a nosey person so as well as being enthralled (and also quite worried and nervous, with a sense of what might come) by the story of Jane and her lover Paul, I was also fascinated by the whole upstairs downstairs element of the book. After one encounter, Jane wanders an empty manor house and tries to see it through the eyes of the wealthy, rather than from the eyes of the worker which is an interesting concept.

Throughout Swift’s writing is wonderful, occasionally a single sentence could make me well up and a few made my jaw drop, as he conjures up the people, places and tiniest details through Jane’s eyes. Everything comes fully formed, vivid and intricate but without him having to spell everything out. His prose is sparse, yet it brims. One of my favourite lines being an observation of orchids, a rare decadent decoration. They had a stillness, an insistence, each little bloom was like a frozen butterfly. Speaking of prose and style, there is also an interesting repetitive and circular nature to the book which could possibly annoy/alienate some but I found gave the novel a real pace, an element of poetry to it as well as that nostalgic sense. There are also some wonderful nods to literature and the joys of storytelling.

Once upon a time, before the boys were killed and when there were more horses than cars, before the male servants disappeared and they made do…

I found Mothering Sunday to be something of a modernistic fairytale, well as modern as you can get with a 1920’s setting. In fact in some ways it could be seen as a feminist version of Cinderella, we have a maid who goes from rags to riches, only it is less the handsome prince that saves her life and more changes it in ways you might not expect. It has a happy ending of sorts, but not the one that you might be expecting. I loved this element as I love a good fairy tale and the nods, sometimes subtle sometimes not so, to other tales outside Cinderella I really enjoyed. They give the tale a sense of nostalgic romanticism and also bring in some of those wonderful gothic elements that have come through storytelling for decades, and Swift is a wonderful storyteller. Can a mirror keep a print? Can you look into a mirror and see someone else? Can you step through a mirror and be someone else?

It is hard to say more about this wonderful book for fear of spoiling it. I will say be prepared to be deeply moved by it for all sorts of reasons. I was quite spell bound by Mothering Sunday and Swift’s writing, so much so that after having read it in bursts all week I sat down and read it again in one gulp this morning and I am sure I will be reaching for it again in the future. A first it seems a simple tale of one day in one woman’s life, yet through its nuances and layers it is a story of storytelling and those moments, big and small, which define our lives and the people who we become. I am now very keen to read much more of Swift’s work, so do let me know where to head. And if you haven’t, do try and get your hands on a copy of this because it’s fantastic.

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Filed under Books of 2016, Graham Swift, Review, Scribner, Simon & Schuster

The Ecliptic – Benjamin Wood

As this goes live I should hopefully be out on a (half) Turkish isle, which is a slightly dubious link to my review today, as Benjamin Wood’s The Ecliptic starts off on a remote Turkish island. Admittedly one that is cold and snowy as opposed to the (hopefully) sunny one I will have descended on. I have purposefully headed to Cyprus for a reading retreat, the characters in The Ecliptic however have gone away to help harness their creative endeavours. So I thought it was an apt time to discuss a book which I read on another reading retreat last year and have been thinking about a long time since for all sorts of reasons…

9781471126703

Scribner, 2015, hardback, fiction, 480 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Portmantle, on the Turkish island of Heybeliada, is a retreat for artists away from the world where they can either rest or recuperate their genius or let that genius loose of their minds and bodies on full cylinders. Here there are strict rules, you must change your name and not only forget the world outside it’s grounds but also endeavour not to refer to it, designed to harness the purity of your concentration and focus. At Portmantle we meet Knell, a painter, along with Quickman the novelist, Pettifer the architect, MacKinney the playwright who have become a little clique, that is until the arrival of a new young artist, Fullerton, whose arrival sets tongues wagging and (as can be the case when anyone new enters a situation) alters the equilibrium between the group. Knell in particular finds herself drawn to Fullerton and his seemingly slightly tortured and mysterious soul.

Of the four of us, it was surely Quickman who valued his detachment most. In the early days, we could not look at him without thinking of the famous photograph on the back cover of his novels – the sunflower lean of him towards the lens, arms crossed defiantly, the brooding London skyline on his shoulders. We had grown up with him on our shelves, that stylish young face squinting at us over bookends, from underneath coffee mugs on our bedside tables. His real name was known in many households, even if it was not part of daily conversation; in literary circles, it was a synonym for greatness, a word that critics added esque to in reviews of lesser writers.

It is hard to say much more about this section of the book for fear of some spoilers which lead to an incredibly gripping, twisted and wonderfully gothic story which I was completely enthralled by. This dramatic conclusion, which is roughly under a third of the book, then sees a sudden shift where we go back to Knell’s life before Portmantle when she was known (and indeed became very well known) as Elspeth Conroy. We follow her life and career as she becomes an assistant, to artist Jim Culvers, after university and then becomes a much acclaimed artist herself in the years that follow.

Now I have to say that the shift in tone niggled me a little at first though Wood soon lulled into the world of the art scene in London (with periods in New York, one of the books strands takes place on a voyage between the two) in what the fifties, yet cleverly has a timeless feel like Portmantle does. As we follow her through the discovery of her creative genius, for that is what she becomes hailed as, we watch as she falls in love, gains confidence, then questions herself as her raise to fame brings other pressures and changes her world for the good and the bad. This is where I found Wood does a marvellous turn at looking at how wonderful the arts and culture world is and also how utterly bonkers and absurd.

I never understood why all this glitz and pageantry was required to sell a picture – it certainly had nothing to do with art. Every painter I respected worked alone in a quiet room, and the images they made were intended for solemn reflection, not to provide the scenery for obnoxious gatherings of nabobs and batty collectors wearing too much perfume. After a while, the company of such people became the norm, and I was expected not only to enchant them with my work, but also to fascinate them with my personality. If I baulked at placating these strangers, it merely served to enthral them even more.

I am not renowned for being a huge fan of books about the arts, in fact often quite the opposite (odd considering I work for a cultural team and love that world, maybe it feels a bit like a busman’s holiday) yet I was converted by Wood because of his writing – which reminds me of Colm Toibin for some reason, which is a big compliment. Firstly the character of Elspeth is such a vivid one, I genuinely felt as if I was with her along all these varied and different through both the highs and the lows. I also thought Wood evoked the era and the places wonderfully, whilst also giving them a slightly surreal edge too almost like a fairy tale but without the magic. I also really liked the feeling that something was coming, again no spoilers here, that would then lead Elspeth to Portmantle and to a life as a pseudonym. I was gulping it all down, especially once we then return to the gothic world of Heybeliada where everything gets all the more odd, sinister and surreal.

There is however a but coming and it is this that I have been thinking about for months since I finished the book and it all revolves around the denouement that you don’t see coming yet sense in the air as the tension gets more and more fraught as The Ecliptic’s conclusion arrives. I think this nameless moment is probably a huge divider for anyone reading the book. People will either love it or they will possibly be a little bit miffed by it, even when another little twist follows. I sadly fell into the latter camp, though I know I am one of the few and far between as many people who I love and trust the opinions of loved it. I felt tricked but not in a good way. I love endings I don’t expect, I love authors doing something different and Wood does these wonderfully. I just think the manipulation that many see as marvellous, and I admire, just lost me and completely unintentionally. I should have worked for me as it has for so many, but it just made me a bit peeved. This was definitely one of those ‘it’s me, not you’ moments as Benjamin as he had me with him for 80% of the book.

Months later the scar from that slight jolt (so dramatic Simon, ha) has passed and as I mention above I can completely understand why what happens happens, the purpose of it and why many wonder at it. I am just in a minority, possibly of one. That said I look back on The Ecliptic and instantly the two worlds of the gothic Portmantle with Knell and the glitzy art world and all behind its facade with Elspeth come straight to the fore because Wood’s writing and characters are superb. I shall definitely be heading to The Bellweather Revivals in due course and think maybe The Ecliptic is a book I may need to take off my shelves in years to come and revisit again because it has certainly stayed with me and made me think about it long after I read it. I would recommend many of you give the experience a whirl and come back and tell me all about it. A perfect book group book if any of you a pondering your next choice, much to ponder and talk about.

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Filed under Benjamin Wood, Review, Scribner