Review: Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers

Oh my goodness, Small Pleasures – what a book! I’ve been reading a lot in lockdown, and this one really pops out. That’s how I know it’s good. It’s been a while since characters and a wonderfully crafted story like this have captured my heart. I was fully emotionally involved, which made it all the more wrenching when it was over.

Set in 1957, we meet the lovely Jean Swinney. She is 39 years old, a reporter on the North Kent Echo newspaper and lives with her mother out of duty, really. She is not married, her father has died and her sister has moved the Switzerland, so it falls to Jean to look after her mother. This leads to a rather mundane and restrictive life for her, until she takes on a job at work that changes everything.

A Virgin Birth

Gretchen Tilbury writes to the newspaper with an extraordinary claim: she believes that her 10-year old daughter, Margaret, was a virgin birth. In that, Gretchen was a virgin when she had her, no man had been involved.

Eyebrows are raised at this claim in the newspaper office, but when one of Jean’s fellow reporters asks: ‘Does anyone want to go and interview Our Lady of Sidcup?’ Jean agrees (or rather, being the only woman on the newspaper, this job falls to Jean). She is a great little investigative reporter. It is due to her research, diligence and sharp eye for detail that the mystery of the virgin birth unfolds.

A lifetime of quiet watchfulness had convinced her that the truth about people was seldom to be found in the things they freely admitted.

While researching her story, Jean becomes close to the whole Tilbury family – Gretchen, her daughter Margaret and her husband, Howard. It is this blurring of Jean’s professional and personal boundaries that gives the story its engrossing, heart-piercing hook.

The 1957 Lewisham Rail Crash

Small Pleasures opens with a newspaper account of a real railway crash in 1957 that tragically killed 90 people and injured 173. I (usually) get the train to work (my blog is named for the 7:47am one I catch in the mornings and read on!) and this crash happened on a train line very near my own. Yet, I didn’t know about it, so this element was fascinating and perhaps made the story a bit more visceral for me.

As the book begins with this account, you can only assume it will weave its way into the story somewhere. Once I realised this was the case and was invested in the characters, I started to panic about who it would involve. I will say no more as to leave this a spoiler free zone, but it’s this added level of subtle tension that adds to the brilliance of Small Pleasures.

In Short: I Loved It

You know when some books just punch you so hard, emotionally? That’s what Small Pleasures did to me. It worked so well as it is, in essence, quite a gentle read, so it almost blindsides you – in a brilliant way – in the last quarter with its conclusion. And, oh, that ending!

It’s a nuanced look at the little things in life, at how the littlest decision can have a huge impact. A wonderful story to let yourself get wrapped up – add to your summer reading list now!

  • Published by W&N 9th July 2020;
  • 352 pages;
  • My rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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