Wednesday 15 July 2020

Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers @ClareDChambers @wnbooks #SmallPleasures @gigicroft #BookReview

1957, south-east suburbs of London. 

Jean Swinney is a feature writer on a local paper, disappointed in love and - on the brink of forty - living a limited existence with her truculent mother.
When a young Swiss woman, Gretchen Tilbury, contacts the paper to claim that her daughter is the result of a virgin birth, it is down to Jean to discover whether she is a miracle or a fraud.

But the more she investigates, the more her life becomes strangely (and not unpleasantly) intertwined with that of the Tilburys: Gretchen herself, her husband Howard - with his dry wit and gentle disposition - and her charming daughter Margaret.

But they are the subject of the story Jean is researching for the newspaper, a story that increasingly seems to be causing dark ripples across all their lives. And yet Jean cannot bring herself to discard the chance of finally having a taste of happiness.

But there will be a price to pay - and it will be unbearable.

Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers was published on 9 July 2020 by W&N. My thanks to the publisher who sent my copy for review.

It is many many years since I last read a novel by Clare Chambers, it's a long time since she published a book, and as soon as this arrived, I felt a surge of excitement. I love her writing, I think she's a much overlooked author, and look at that cover!

I was absolutely entranced by Small Pleasures, from the intriguing prologue, right through to that ending that is so emotional that it felt like I'd been punched in the gut. The writing is seamless, the story is beautifully woven. Not one word is wasted and the characters are so beautifully created that they felt so real, as though they were part of my world, living and breathing beside me.

Jean Swinney is a fairly unusual woman of the 1950s. Single and living with her mother who is demanding and difficult, she's a reporter for the North East Echo. Jean holds her own amongst her male colleagues, affording a certain amount of respect from them. Her Editor is particularly fond of her, offering advice and a sympathetic word when needed. When the newspaper receives a letter from Swiss born Gretchen Tilbury; claiming that her ten-year-old daughter Margaret is the result of a virgin birth, the story is given to Jean to follow up.

Ever the investigator, and with a charm and empathic nature that puts people at ease, Jean soon finds herself immersed in the life of the Tilbury family. Gretchen's story, whilst quite extraordinary, doesn't appear to be that of a mad woman, or someone looking for attention. Her loving and mild mannered husband Howard does not disbelieve her and their daughter Margaret is intelligent and loving, despit her claims to hear voices of angels from time to time.

As Jean becomes closer to all members of the Tilbury family, she discovers that under the gleaming surface, this is a family with many secrets hidden. Jean's continued involvement with the Tilburys can only lead to heartache for her, but sometimes even the most sensible of women allow their heart to rule their head.

This author writes magnificently. Her prose is just sublime, from the descriptions of everyday things such as the falling rain and a suburban living room, to the more complicated affairs of heart and emotion, she never puts a word wrong.

The reader roots for Jean all the way through this outstanding novel. She's a quirky, sometimes spiky character with a deep rooted sense of right and wrong.
The Tilburys; both Gretchen and Howard are wonderfully created, total opposites and both leading lives that are perfect on the surface, yet tarnished with unrequited love and passion. It's a heady mix and the slow, but careful development of the characters is an absolute joy to be part of.

The ending of Small Pleasures is one that I will find hard to forget; it is shocking and brings the reader full circle, back to that mysterious prologue, but with such impact and emotional depth. I was reeling after turning the final page.

Welcome back Clare Chambers, you have been sorely missed. I can only hope that readers are not kept waiting so long for her next book. Undoubtedly one of my top books of 2020.
Wonderful, just wonderful.

Clare Chambers was born in south east London in 1966. She studied English at Oxford and spent the year after graduating in New Zealand, where she wrote her first novel, Uncertain Terms, published when she was 25. She has since written eight further novels, including Learning to Swim (Century 1998) which won the Romantic Novelists’ Association best novel award and was adapted as a Radio 4 play, and In a Good Light (Century 2004) which was longlisted for the Whitbread best novel prize.

Clare began her career as a secretary at the publisher André Deutsch, when Diana Athill was still at the helm. They not only published her first novel, but made her type her own contract. In due course she went on to become a fiction and non-fiction editor there herself, until leaving to raise a family and concentrate on her own writing. Some of the experiences of working for an eccentric, independent publisher in the pre-digital era found their way into her novel The Editor’s Wife (Century, 2007). When her three children were teenagers, inspired by their reading habits, she produced two YA novels, Bright Girls (HarperCollins 2009) and Burning Secrets (HarperCollins 2011).

Her most recent novel is Small Pleasures (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2020).

She takes up a post as Royal Literary Fund Fellow at the University of Kent in September 2020.

She lives with her husband in south east London and generally has her nose in a book.

Twitter @ClareDChambers

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