Review: Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers (2020)

Blurb

1957, south-east suburbs of London.
Jean Swinney is a feature writer on a local paper, disappointed in love and – on the brink of forty – living a limited existence with her truculent mother.

When a young Swiss woman, Gretchen Tilbury, contacts the paper to claim that her daughter is the result of a virgin birth, it is down to Jean to discover whether she is a miracle or a fraud.

But the more she investigates, the more her life becomes strangely (and not unpleasantly) intertwined with that of the Tilburys: Gretchen herself, her husband Howard – with his dry wit and gentle disposition – and her charming daughter Margaret.

But they are the subject of the story Jean is researching for the newspaper, a story that increasingly seems to be causing dark ripples across all their lives. And yet Jean cannot bring herself to discard the chance of finally having a taste of happiness.

But there will be a price to pay – and it will be unbearable.

Review

I was thrilled to win a beautiful proof copy of this book – thank you again to Virginia Woolstencroft, W&N, and the author for my copy. Below is my honest review of the book.

Small Pleasures is a quietly surprising book. The premise of the novel – a local reporter investigating claims of a virgin birth – is absolutely gripping, but the sensationalism of this premise belies the incredible subtlety of the book. Similarly, the use of newspaper extracts could have been gimmicky in the hands of a less skilled writer, but Chambers uses the household tips and opinion pieces scattered throughout the book to add another layer of poignancy to Jean’s story. It is very cleverly done, and I am in awe of how this novel is constructed.

The language and the period detail of Small Pleasures are an appropriately understated joy: the novel feels so of the time it is set that it could almost have been written in 1957. Nothing is overdone – it is a masterclass in nuance and precision. There is something so careful and detailed in Chambers’ writing – every sentence feels lovingly shaped, and the overall effect is quite mesmerising.

Jean is one of the most convincing characters I have come across in my recent reading. Following her viewpoint through the story, I both sympathised with her and occasionally got frustrated with her, which for me is always a sign that the character has become real to me. I felt a lot warmer towards Gretchen than Jean does as the novel progresses, but Jean’s fading sympathy makes absolute sense for the character as her feelings for Howard, Gretchen’s husband, grow. Gretchen’s situation is heart-wrenching, but Jean, of course, is on her own path, and sees things differently to me. It was quite something to realise that the meaning of the beautiful cover was, in a way, much more poignant to me that it was to Jean – my heart ached for Gretchen when I came across its significance, and I am not sure Jean’s would have at that point in the story. This is a really interesting and very real way to experience characters, and I am still thinking about the intricacies of this complex story.

Anyone who has read this book knows that the ending is…something. I wouldn’t dream of spoiling it, so I will instead sum up how I feel about the book as a whole. There is so much skill, so much quiet, restrained emotion here. It is a story which shows us that tragedy doesn’t have to be bright and bold, and that the accumulations of an unsatisfying life can be as damaging as more obviously traumatic experiences. This is a novel that makes you think and makes you feel, which is the very best kind of reading experience.

Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers is out now published by W&N/Orion.

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