Small Pleasures is both an absorbing mystery and a tender love story, and the ending is devastating. Chambers is a writer who finds the truth of things. If you admire Tessa Hadley or Anne Tyler (and there are shades of Barbara Pym, too), then this is one for you.
Newspaper journalist Jean Swinney is struck writing household tips and caring for her demanding mother until she investigates a curious claim of a virgin birth. An exquisitely written story of how happiness can find us when we least expect it.
This is the author's first novel in 10 years and made me want to read her entire back catalogue! It's set in suburban London in 1957, where Jean Swinney is a writer for a local paper. When she discovers an intriguing story about a virgin birth, she gets embroiled in the lives of the family she interviews. An enticing read.
Inhaling a book in one giant gulp is one of the most gloriously delicious things about summer. This year more than ever we deserve a book that has the magical ability to make the rest of the world fall away while you race through its pages and — phew — we’ve got it. Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers, set in perfectly pruned Fifties south London suburbia, is about a woman who claims to have had a virgin birth, and Jean Swinney, the local journalist who stumbles on the story. It’s gripping, tender and perfectly formed. Read it before someone else tells you to.
Chambers deftly conjures how much these small pleasures mean to people living pinched lives of making do and mending (the novel is dotted with Jean’s Household Hints, taken from real magazines of the 50s and all concerned with saving money). But she also writes with compassion of the bigger passions and unspoken sorrows that lie buried under the respectable surface, and how these can threaten to derail a life, especially in a society that expects women to behave a certain way. There is more than an echo of Brief Encounter here, as repressed desire conflicts with duty; trains figure prominently too.
The writing is so unassuming that it would be easy to miss how accomplished it is. Cliches are skilfully avoided and the atmosphere is richly portrayed, as in the ghastly guest house with a “mushroomy smell of wet mackintosh” where Jean and her mother spend a week’s unenviable holiday. Small, everyday experiences are faithfully rendered in this story and there are flashes of wisdom throughout, such as Jean’s observation that “people hide their feelings all the time”, and “who really knows what goes on in a marriage?”
Small Pleasures is an almost flawlessly written tale of genuine, grown-up romantic anguish. Written in prose that is clipped as closely as suburban hedges, this is a book about seemingly mild people concealing turbulent feelings. Jean and Howard’s desire for each other becomes so inflamed by self-denial it gains a tragic grandeur. Far from being cosy, the novel centres on homosexuality, abortion and sexual assault, themes that Chambers doesn’t so much “tackle” as embed so deeply in the narrative that you can’t possibly avoid them — even as her buttoned-up characters try hard to.
It’s a book heavy with repression – always lightly and compassionately rendered by Chambers, the smallest of details betraying enormous sadness. “Eating out was something other people did. Over the years she had trained herself not to mind.” A cry is scheduled “between seven and seven-thirty, when she had got home from work and done her chores”. Jean can’t even bring herself to resent her mother properly, overcome by guilt and sorrow at their damaged relationship. In an exquisitely loaded moment, Jean realises she doesn’t know the colour of her mother’s eyes because it’s been so long since they made eye contact.
Chambers’ use of the terrible train crash as a framing device unfortunately feels rather contrived, but this is nonetheless a gentle, heart-aching mystery that’s infused with empathy and a keen understanding of stifling 1950s mores.
The postwar suburban milieu of Chambers’ work has drawn comparisons to Barbara Pym, although perhaps a closer parallel could be made with Anita Brookner, with whom she shares an interest in intelligent, isolated women destabilised by the effects of an unexpected and unsustainable love affair. At its best, Chambers’ eye for drab, undemonstrative details achieves a Larkin-esque lucidity – when writing about the “porridge-coloured” doilies crocheted by Jean’s mother, for example: “They had dozens of these at home, little puddles of string under every vase, lamp and ornament.”... One can appreciate the novel for its quiet humour and compassionate consideration of the everyday, unfashionable and unloved. But in terms of revelation, it is probably too much to expect miracles.
Chambers’s voice, which is highly infected by Jean’s, can be tart (the iron lung resembles a “coffin made out of an old Morris Minor”), but it is generous. Jean is never patronised and nor is Howard. There is no ironic knowingness in the depiction of a lost England. Thanks to the detailing, we are simply in it, as we are for six months in Jean’s life. It is an involving tale, and if I were you I would not read the “news story” that precedes the book proper and hints at its ending. Small Pleasures is no small pleasure.