An Unexpected Book Review: Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers

I wasn’t going to review this book. I had every intention of reading, enjoying but not putting pen to paper. But, lovely bookish people, Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers is just too good a book to pass by without a review to wish it well and tell everyone what a gem it is.

Not that this book published last month by W & N needs any help from little old me. This book has been praised by greater voices than mine and there is an all around buzz about it’s brilliance pretty much everywhere you look.

At the heart of this novel is a strange tale, based in truth. Jean Swinney is a journalist working on the local paper, approaching forty, she is leading a sheltered, some might say half life, with her difficult mother. When the paper runs a short, almost hidden article, on a study regarding parthenogenesis in mammals, in layman’s terms ‘virgin births’, Jean’s working and then personal life is transformed.

The article prompts a letter from a local woman, Gretchen Tilbury who claims that her daughter, Margaret, is the result of such a process and she is willing to give the newspaper more details. Jean is duly dispatched to meet Gretchen and discover more about her extraordinary claim. According to Gretchen her pregnancy was a complete surprise and she is convinced that Margaret was conceived whilst she was a young patient in a closed ward. During this time Gretchen in her late teens was being treated for rheumatoid arthritis. The ward was strict, partially run by nuns and the girls were never left unsupervised. Hence her belief in an immaculate conception.

So Jean begins an association with Gretchen that begins on professional terms; accompanying her to medical investigations and interviewing former acquaintances, all to aiming to collaborate her strange story. But quickly this develops into a more personal relationship, as Jean is welcomed into the Tilbury family, not only by Gretchen but also her intriguing daughter Margaret and her intelligent and unassuming husband, Howard.

Howard fully supports his wife and having married her when Margaret was a baby, has raised the child as his own. On the surface this family seem to live an suburban dream, but as Jean gets to know them and her relationship with each family member deepens in unique ways, she is aware that all is not quite as it seems. But despite this her new friendships are providing a welcome respite from her stifling relationship with her mother and a break from her routine.

This is a novel that absolutely draws you and then won’t let go. The characters are beguiling and intriguing, particularly those of Jean and Howard. I immediately had a real sense of investment in the characters which meant I cared, quite intently, about what happened to them in the future and what had happened to them in the past. Because all these characters have a backstory and this is crucial to the layers and direction of this story.

There is so much to be considered and discussed in this novel. There is, for example, the age old ‘problem’ of the spinster; women like Jean who are intelligent, have much to offer but are trapped within duty and obligation, looking after older relatives because society and circumstance have dictated their fate. Equally as continually the novel explores the sense of self in a relationship, and asks what level of sacrifice can one person make for another before a denial of individual feelings and needs becomes intolerable. Each of these characters and their situations provide depth and heart to the plot and it’s conclusion.

The sense of place in this novel is stunning. It is set in 1957 and the atmosphere of the writing perfectly conveys the period detail of this time. It is rare to encounter a novel which so beautifully immerses you into it’s time period, so completely that you feel you have time travelled, but that is exactly what Clare Chambers achieves here. After reading Small Pleasures I experienced that delicious book feeling of ‘coming up for air’. That feeling you get when you have been completely taken over by a narrative and you don’t want to leave the characters and the setting behind. For someone who gets twitchy if she doesn’t have a book ‘on the go’ at all times, I found it impossible to bounce on to the next book. I needed time to peel myself away from these characters and their stories and to come to terms with what I had read. In short I missed this book, and I still miss it now.

I am not sure I have managed to convey in this short review even half of what I loved about this book. It was a beautiful surprise to me to find it so beguiling and complete. If what I have written here encourages just one more person to pick it up and become lost within it’s pages then my work here is done.

Rachel x

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