Book Review: Small Pleasures – Clare Chambers

About The Book

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.

My Review

Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers has been on my bookshelf since the summer when I bought a hardcover copy after a) hearing lots of great things about it and b) falling in love with that cover (I am a complete cover tart). Since then I’ve watched Clare Chambers online at Durham Book Festival and Small Pleasures was also book of the week on BBC2’s Between The Covers. There is always a worry that books which you’ve been dying to get to will fail to live up to expectations, but, Small Pleasures was definitely worth the wait.

Set in an evocative 1957, our protagonist is Jean Swinney, a reporter on the North Kent Echo. Her days are spent writing Household Hints and write ups of marriages and her evenings and weekends are spent caring for her difficult and obtuse mother. “Over the hill” at 39, she is unmarried and has found herself in something of a rut. Her sister lives in Kenya so the household upkeep, gardening and cooking and falls solely to her. Her world is very small and lonely and as the only female reporter on the paper is a woman in a man’s world.

Things change when the newspaper receives a letter from Gretchen Tilbury, a Swiss woman who moved to the UK as a child, who has written to say that her daughter Margaret is a virgin birth. Gretchen was confined to bed in a sanatorium receiving treatment for Rheumatoid Arthritis at the time conception would have occurred and had no idea she was pregnant for quite some time.

Intrigued by the letter Jean sets out to investigate, meeting Gretchen, her husband Howard and her daughter Margaret. She finds herself ensconced in the lives of the Tilburys, becoming friends with Gretchen and Howard and finding that her long buried maternal instincts are brought to the surface by the quite lovely 10 year old Margaret.

Spanning most of the year of 1957 it is filled with observations of suburban life of this time. The shopping, the housework, the evenings spent by the wireless and the role of women (housewife and mother) are all brought vividly to life. Jean is a compelling protagonist and I enjoyed meeting her. She is well drawn, utterly real and I found myself feeling what she was feeling.

I found the relationship between Jean and her mother in particular quite absorbing. Her mother won’t leave the house and is solely reliant upon Jean. There is a fine line between duty and love and Jean finds herself treading this narrow path. She tries not to be resentful that her life is so tied up with that of her mother’s but it is difficult not to be. The Tilburys represent another life, a life she has missed out on; one of being a wife and mother and of romantic love.

As the investigation continues it becomes apparent that this will be no simple case and Jean discovers that the private and professional will be perilously mixed. Digging further and further into Gretchen’s past whilst getting closer and closer to her and her family in the present, Jean finds herself inextricably linked to their lives.

This is a very readable book; there’s a mystery, a likeable protagonist, intrigue and a plot which clips along at a strong pace. It is beautifully and intelligently written and as the book progressed I found myself falling deeper and deeper into the narrative. It is emotive, compelling (I read two thirds of it in one sitting) and hopeful. But be warned, you may need tissues. It’s one of my books of the year. I loved it and hope that you do too.

Where You Can Buy It

Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers was published on the 9th July by W&N in hardcover and ebook.

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