Small Pleasures, Clare Chambers’ first novel in nine years, was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction and named as a book of the year by nine newspapers and magazines in the UK. I wonder what all those judges and literary editors saw in this book that I missed?
There are many elements to enjoy in this tale of journalist who gets the chance to escape a life of duty and disappointment when she encounters a woman who has an extraordinary claim about her past. it’s highly readable, perfectly captures the atmosphere of London in the 1950s and has a couple of strong characters.
And yet I didn’t ever feel completely immersed in the story.
The novel focuses on Jean Swinney, a feature writer for a local newspaper near her home in one of the London suburbs. Approaching 40, she feels her life slipping away in the mundanity of caring for her grouchy, clinging mother. Jean’s pleasures are indeed small: “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 …”
Her job at the North Kent Echo offers an escape from the house but is equally undemanding. The role of features editor sounds glamorous but in reality it means churning out handy household tips and fun ways to mark such wonderful events as National Salad Week and write ups of the previous week’s weddings.
The humble lettuce, if properly dressed, can be the foundation of many nutritious family meals. Try serving with baked or fried forcemeat balls for. crisp new touch…..
Her humdrum life is transformed when a woman writes to the newspaper claiming to have experienced a virgin birth. When no one else in the editorial team shows the slightest interest in this story, it’s down to Jean to discover whether Gretchen Tilbury is a fraud or a biological miracle.
Small Pleasures follows Jean’s attempts to refute or substantiate Gretchen’s claim that, at the time of her daughter’s conception, she was suffering from severe rheumatoid arthritis and was confined to bed in a a convent-run nursing home. We follow her interviews with former staff members and patients at the convent and appointments with medical experts who arrange a series of tests to establish if there is a genetic match between Gretchen and her daughter Margaret.
But Jean’s objectivity becomes compromised by her growing attachment to the Tilbury family and especially to Gretchen’s husband Howard. Will these friendships offer her the opportunity for happiness at last?
Clare Chambers clearly has a great eye for detail. She captures the drabness of Jean’s life with her mother in wonderful detail, right down to the crocheted doilies that sit “like little puddles of string under every vase, lamp and ornament.” and the pair’s nightly rituals of gin rummy and darning before a bedtime hot milky drink.
The evocation of London life in 1957 is also handled skillfully. Shops close promptly at 5.30pm, hand-knitted jumpers are given as Christmas presents and women make their own dresses from Simplicity paper patterns. The most telling evocation of the era comes in the form of Jean’s titbits on household management that are interspersed throughout the novel.
They speak of a time when “make do and mend” was the norm and wives (no men involved in domestic chores !) were keen to get tips to prepare tasty but thrifty meals.
From one of Jean’s pieces for example, we learn:
Never throw away an old plastic makintosh. 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.
And from another:
“GOOD USES FOR SOUR MILK. Linoleum or cloth washed with sour milk comes up brighter than with water. Sour milk also makes a good bleach for discoloured white fabrics. Wring out articles in water, place in a bowl and cover with sour milk. Leave for forty-eight hours. Wash thoroughly and the articles will be snow-white”
Despite all the positive aspects, Small Pleasures was ultimately an unsatisfactory read. The dramatic event at the end, which picks up on a real-life incident, felt too neat a conclusion for the story. The book was perfectly readable but it was the equivalent of vanilla ice-cream for me — enjoyable at the time but not memorable.