Clare Chambers writes the kind of novel that I particularly like, finding the unique in ordinary characters, rounded out with gorgeous writing full of perception and wit. We hadn’t had anything new from her for a while, so when Small Pleasures appeared I let out a whoop of joy and wasn’t in the least surprised to see the book make the Women’s Prize for Fiction long-list. And of course, when I got my hands on a copy, I devoured it.
Small Pleasures is set in southern England in 1957 and is based around two unrelated events which really happened that year. The first is a rail disaster introduced on the first page of the book as a newspaper report dated 6 December, in which two trains collided in thick fog, leaving 80 dead and many more wounded. But over the page we skip back to June with another story from the North Kent Echo, which is where Jean Swinney works as a reporter.
It’s a small piece on parthenogenesis under the dramatic headline: Men No Longer Needed for Reproduction! Scientists have been studying reproduction in frogs and rabbits, the story says, developing embryos without fertilisation by sperm, and hinting at the possibility that this could take place in larger mammals, even humans. The article elicits a mailbag full of letters, including one from a Mrs Tilbury who states her daughter was born ‘without the involvement of any man’.
Jean’s role on the paper is largely what might once have been called the ‘women’s pages’ – household hints and reports on weddings. Not surprisingly, she’s tasked with making contact with Mrs T – the nature of the story is a bit too delicately feminine for the mostly male newsroom. Jean soon warms to Gretchen Tilbury and her daughter and learns that in the months around young Margaret’s date of conception, Gretchen was a teenager suffering from immobilising rheumatoid arthritis and the patient of a nursing home.
As Jean tries to piece together the facts around Margaret’s birth, encouraging the mother and daughter to take part in a scientific study, her world is suddenly expanded by the Tilburys’ friendship, including Mr Tilbury – Howard – who is kindly and perceptive. She visits the family out of office hours, which is often problematic as Jean also cares for a malingering, agoraphobic mother in a kind of genteel poverty. Theirs is a life of small pleasures indeed.
Small pleasures – the first cigarette of the day; a glass of sherry before Sunday lunch; a bar of chocolate parcelled out to last a week; a newly published library book, still pristine and untouched by other hands …
We are definitely in post-war Britain here. London is the victim of those terrible pea-soup fogs, and unmarried women are expected to look after ageing parents, relinquishing their independence. People are always making do with less it seems. Even Jean’s handy hints column is a little depressing:
Never throw away an old plastic mackintosh. The hood cut off will make a useful toilet bag. The large back panel may be used to line a suitcase to ensure safety from damp should the case get wet when travelling.
But as Jean begins to enjoy her new friendships – a godmotherly relationship with Margaret, as well as the possibility of happiness of a deeper kind – the reader cannot quite forget the image of that rail crash reported on page one. Sooner or later that event is going to raise its ugly head, a bit like Chekov’s gun. For me this gave the book an almost unbearable suspense, and the pages flew by.
Small Pleasures is a brilliant novel if you like stories about lives of quiet desperation told with charm and understanding – Barbara Pym and Anne Tyler spring to mind. I felt absolutely wretched for Jean at times, hopeful at others. Chambers always makes you really care about her characters and I finished the book knowing that the story will stay with me for days afterwards, and it has. A four and a half out of five read from me.