I like to browse the shelves and tables stacked with books in my local Waterstones. Like many people, I’ve taken to ordering more books online, occasionally for Kindle, though I don’t really like using it for a novel – I like the real thing: a proper book in my hands to hold as I curl up in a favourite ‘reading’ chair and disappear into a fictional world – but nothing beats a slow walk round a bookshop, picking up books that immediately attract one’s interest and taking a closer look. I invariably buy two books in Waterstones due to their ‘By One Get One Half Price’ offer on paperbacks and thus Clare Chambers’ Small Pleasures came to be bought, along with another book, chosen partly from the blurb and because it was long-listed for the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction.
Small Pleasures is an exquisitely written portrait of 1950s Britain. The ‘small pleasures’ of the title refer to the protagonist’s ‘small’ life and her collection of ‘small pleasures’: ‘In Jean’s bedroom was a dressing-table drawer filled with things too precious ever to be used. Soaps, cosmetics, perfume. … ‘ There’s incredible poignancy in some of the descriptions of Jean’s life. She is nearing 40, a journalist on a local paper, the North Kent Echo. It sounds glamorous, but her life certainly isn’t. She lives with her mother, a needy, self-centred and difficult woman who rarely leaves the house. Jean’s life seems very grim indeed and devoid of hope of anything better. Her work mainly consists of writing typical women’s articles of the time – what to do with an excess of apples from the garden; how to ‘keep your fingers white and soft’. But then an extraordinary letter from a reader takes Jean along a surprising and life-changing journey.
An article in the paper about parthenogenesis – creatures that don’t need a male to reproduce – is followed by a letter from a woman, Gretchen, who claims a virgin birth. After an editorial discussion about whether they want to ‘encourage these cranks’, Jean is sent to interview Gretchen and find out more. She discovers that at the time Gretchen must have become pregnant with her 10-year-old daughter Margaret, she was hospitalised for a few months, bed-bound with rheumatoid arthritis. Unable to walk, surrounded by nursing nuns and other female patients, how was conception with a man possible?
A hospital takes on the challenge of investigating whether such a conception is possible and Jean takes Gretchen and Margaret along to undergo tests. Remarkably, for a time things look promising, as if a virgin birth might indeed have happened. Chambers manages to maintain a level of real possibility in the reader’s mind despite our natural inclination to declare it impossible. During her investigation into the story, Jean inevitably spends a lot of time with Gretchen and her family – the daughter and her husband Howard, who has always said he believes Gretchen’s story about Margaret’s birth. Jean gets drawn into the family’s life and finds a joy and pleasure in family pursuits that have been absent in her own life. She becomes fond of Margaret, her growing love for the child filling the gap of her own childlessness. For a long time she believes in Gretchen, always so kind and dependable. At first she can’t understand how the rather boring Howard attracted a beautiful younger woman like Gretchen, but as time goes by and she sees his qualities, she grows increasingly fond and then attracted to him. Guilty at first about her feelings, as she sees the cracks appear in Gretchen and Howard’s marriage, that all is not as it seems, she allows herself to grow closer to him and finds a love she never dreamed possible.
Meanwhile, she interviews girls – now women – who were at the hospital with Gretchen; a nurse who was there at the same time. More and more questions are thrown up as the story unravels and we find ourselves caught up in the mystery.
There are inevitable surprises and twists but I don’t want to give away too much, hoping you will read this instead. What we see is that sometimes the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, can be an awful thing and once seen cannot be unseen: ‘Having set out in the pursuit of truth, she had now learned something it would have been better not to know.’
I found this a compelling read and almost couldn’t put it down. There was the mystery of the virgin birth to be solved but mostly I became caught up in the brilliant evocation of 1950s life, particularly for an unmarried woman nearing her forties. The repressed emotions, the stifling limited life and opportunities, were so moving, especially Jean rewarding herself with life’s 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.’ It’s a kind of social history too with the descriptions of the hardships of ordinary domestic life at the time compared to now; the way marriage and unmarried women were viewed. I loved the book, though have to confess I found the ending just a little too contrived and thus a bit disappointing. But it would be interesting to know what others thought of it. Do let me know if you read the book in Comments below!