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.
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.