Graham Swift has a way with words. Truly. One of those terse and elegant British writers who evoke time and place through character. Never more so than his new novella. Talk about packing a punch.
The time: 1924. The place: Beechwood, a suburb of London. Families are still reeling from their WWI losses and the divide between aristocracy and the underclass is wide. Jane is an orphan, a house maid, having an affair with the bon vivant who lives nearby. She delights in their subterfuge as they tryst at all sorts of places, but on this day, Mother’s Day, when all the house staffs visit their mums and families are dining together elsewhere, she is invited for the first time to his estate where, on the opening page, she lay naked enjoying the sense of adventure and an erotic radiance.
But she watched him now move, naked but for a silver signet ring, across the sunlit room. She would not later in life use with any readiness, if at all, the word “stallion” for a man. But such he was. He was twenty-three and she was twenty-two. And he was even what you might call a thoroughbred, although she did not have that word then…
The great trick of the novel is that Jane stays naked throughout most of the day as she lingers at the homestead while her lover leaves for lunch with his fiancé. Yes, he is soon to be married. Their end is in sight. Perhaps.
He has invited her to stay. And as she wanders the house, naked, she examines paraphernalia, indulges in fresh pie, discovers lifestyle in the details and imagines scenes that might have been. Or may be.
All the scenes. To imagine them was only to imaging the possible, even to predict the actual. But it was also to conjure the non-existent.
Yes, Jane evolves to be a quite famous storyteller. But we don’t know that just yet. Her imagination has already been cultivated by the master of her house, who has invited her to freely use his library. She chooses, to his surprise, adventure and nautical tales which fire her imagination with all that seems impossible to an orphan girl. However to this orphan, a clean slate for a fertile mind.
“…I was left on the steps of an orphanage – in some sort of a bundle. There were places in those days where that sort of thing could happen. 1902. It was a different world. Not the start in life any of us might wish for. But then in some ways” – the glint would appear again – “the perfect one.”
No spoilers now. I will just say the story unfolds in one day and captures a lifetime. A fascinating lifetime. And a divine evocation of the nature of writing.
Less than 200 pages. A restrained literary masterpiece. In hardcover at Laguna Beach Books.