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Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers

I liked the synopsis of Small Pleasures so much I bought the book twice.
Naturally, that was an oversight, which I justified to myself by the excuse that there was a sizeable time gap between the purchases and which I resolved by giving one copy away as a birthday present. As fate would have it, it turned out to be a very nice gift because Clare Chamber’s first novel in a decade is an absolute joy.

Synopsis of Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers

Set in 1950s London, Jean Swinney is a reluctant spinster approaching forty and living with her mother. Jean’s life consists of writing features and a weekly column for the local newspaper and returning home every night to the demanding needs of her mother. In response to a small article published in the paper, the office receives a letter from a woman who claims her daughter was a virgin birth and, intrigued, Jean persuades her editor to let her follow it up.
Through the eyes of Jean, we meet the young mother in question, Gretchen Tilbury, whose claim appears to rest on solid foundations, along with her delightful daughter, Margaret, and Gretchen’s much older, and somewhat lacklustre husband, Howard.

During the ensuing investigation, Jean finds herself in tantalising touching distance of a life she has long dreamed about, but which has remained elusively trapped behind her domestic responsibilities.

My Review

Reading Small Pleasures was like sinking into my favourite armchair on a winter’s afternoon, with a soft warm blanket, a cup of steaming soup and a black-and-white matinee on the telly. The details of Jean’s domestic life brought hazy childhood memories and a nostalgic return to a time when life was so much harder yet more simple, and safe.

Interspersed with the narrative, are little pearls of wisdom which feature in Jean’s Household Hints column, and which perfectly encapsulate the ‘mend and make do’ culture of Britain’s post-war decades.

Has the stiffening at the back of your house slippers worn down? I have successfully repaired several pairs by sewing a piece of old collar inside. The semi-stiff kind from a man’s shirt is ideal and will prolong the life of your slippers.

Clare Chambers uses the everyday mundanity of Jean’s life to symbolise her heroine’s unfulfilled hopes and dreams:

In Jean’s bedroom was a dressing-table drawer filled with things too precious ever to be used. Soaps, cosmetics, perfume, stationery – mostly gifts, or the occasional rash purchase – they had been accumulated and hoarded over many years. The contemplation of these treasures, still pristine in their packaging, gave Jean far more satisfaction than using them ever could. A leather notebook with marbled endpapers and gold-tipped pages was a thing of beauty only as long as its pages remained blank. A lipstick was spoiled the moment it touched her lips – unused its potential was infinite.

As the mystery of Gretchen’s virgin birth begins to gather detail, we learn about Jean’s lost chance at love. It’s not an unusual tale, just an everyday occurrence of deceit and loss, resulting in the sort of domestic servitude that is still so common – the unmarried daughter left looking after her aged parent full time. Now, out of the blue, Jean’s involvement with the Tilbury family brings her unexpected happiness and a chance at finally finding the life she yearns for.

The novel moves at a good pace. It’s not a Mick Herron page-turner filled with high action but it’s utterly engrossing, and I found myself yearning to be back within its pages every evening. This is a story of one woman’s extraordinary claim and of the journalist who sought to track down the truth. But it’s also a nostalgic return to the ‘fifties, a place that, on the eve of an impending recession and at the mercy of incompetent leaders, looks very attractive right now.

If you’re a Gen Z reader, the world of Small Pleasures will be as alien to you as the concept of letter-writing and only having three channels on the TV must be, but if you’re a boomer, you’ll probably love it.

Small Pleasures was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021


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