Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers

I adore novels with a strong sense of place and ‘Small Pleasures’ certainly fit the bill. Set in 1957 in the suburbs of London, Jean Swinney works as a feature writer at local newspaper, ‘The North Kent Echo.’  She lives with her elderly ailing mother and from the start it’s clear that Jean’s life is one of domesticity, boredom, and responsibility.  She enjoys the ‘small pleasures’ of a sherry now and then, a few cigarettes while lying on the lawn, or a day trip away from the suffocating atmosphere in which she resides.

With the arrival of a new story to investigate, Jean’s life suddenly becomes a lot more interesting. A young Swiss woman called Gretchen Tilbury contacts the paper to say that her daughter Margaret is the result of a virgin birth.   When Jean investigates the story, she gets more than she bargained for.  She begins a friendship with Gretchen, Howard and Margaret that will lead to unusual and devastating consequences.

This novel had me hooked from the start.  Written in the third person, the narrative is perfectly paced, and after just a few pages I felt Jean was someone I would certainly go for a drink with. I sympathized immediately with the situation she was stuck in with her cantankerous mother.  Every aspect of Jean’s life is beautifully detailed, with the small details such as a dinner of ‘liver and onions, and tinned pears with evaporated milk for pudding’ creating a vivid picture of life in 1950s London.

Jean’s relationship with the Tilbury family develops slowly and yet I was immediately drawn in to the impact the small gestures of kindness shown to Jean by the family had on her.  The warmth between Gretchen and her daughter Margaret serves to highlight the lack of affection Jean has had in her own life, and makes you feel for her all the more.

I loved the character of Jean.  I thought despite her circumstances she was – as they probably would have said in those days – a plucky ol bird!  She may be somewhat naïve but paradoxically I think she is also switched on in many ways and knows there is something more to this story from the start.

Her friendship with Howard is extraordinarily moving and would bring a tear to a glass eye!

I loved the characterization, the sense of place and the gradual unfolding of the narrative – all exquisitely timed and oh so beautifully written.

There are only about 5 or 6 books that I own that I re-read for pleasure.  I will certainly be adding this one to the list.   A wonderful novel.    Delighted to see it getting all the coverage it deserves.