The opening of Graham Swift’s new novel clearly signals his intent. ‘Once upon a time’ tells us that this will be a book about adversity and triumph. We know, because this is how fairy tales work, that there is the possibility of a happily ever after. And there is the hint too, in these opening lines, that the telling of the story will be as important as the tale itself.
Once upon a time there was a servant girl, a foundling, who had no family to visit on Mothering Sunday. It is 30 March 1924, a holiday for domestic staff. The Nivens and Sheringhams — occupants of the neighbouring households of Beechwood and Upleigh — are taking lunch at a hotel while their staff travel to visit their families. But Jane Fairchild, maidservant to the Nivens, is left behind. As with the best of fairy tales, the absence of a mother allows our heroine a freedom from expectation or obligation that will, we suspect, be the making of her.
When we first meet Jane she is lying naked in bed contemplating the equally naked form of Paul Sheringham, heir to Upleigh. They have just had sex. In fact, they have been having sex — in the stables, in the greenhouse — for the past six years. Our 22-year-old heroine is coming into womanhood in a world overwhelmed by the loss of a generation of men in the trenches of the Great War. Each of the households has lost two sons. Later in life Jane will recall ‘all that accumulated loss and grief’:
How could anyone be unaware of it? Every week she dusted two rooms where everything was to remain ‘just as it was’. You went in, took a little breath perhaps, and got on with it.
On this Sunday, Paul, the sole surviving Sheringham son, is late for lunch with his fiancée. Of course, the affair with Jane is a secret and this is, she expects, one of their last encounters.
As Graham Swift recounts the events of this single, life-changing day, the reader is in sure and steady hands. Over the years, Jane will brood on the details of her time with Paul; the story unfolds in ever widening circles, often drawing back again and again to examine the same small action or thought. All the while the reader is thrown tiny titbits of the future and past. Although we are never far from the central events of that particular day in March, we learn that this young woman will rise from the bed and go on to live a long, remarkable life. We glimpse her as an old woman, an internationally acclaimed writer who lives to the age of 98, transcending the bleak promise of her station, gender and family circumstance. There is a lulling quality to the movement between sections of the book — rhythms and repetitions, the ebb and flow of a tide, the wearing down of rock to form sand on a beach. Once upon a time, ‘a story was beginning’.
This is the story of a woman’s becoming, as she discovers her power and possibility. It is a lot to pack into such a slim and tidy volume. But for all the detailed examination of character and the bold sweep of time, there is not a word wasted. Jane Fairchild is a figure who, once imagined, could easily have filled a novel five times as long as this. It is our luck that she has been gifted to a writer able to resist that temptation. For example, when we come to the pivotal moment, the moment that will mark Jane forever, Swift delivers it in two short lines — a lesson in poetic brevity. With a clear focus on the possibilities of the short form, he achieves a delicate harmony between the cool detachment of the narrative voice and the intensity of emotion conveyed on every page. This is a rare read indeed.