Reporter chasing virgin birth produces page turner

Reporter chasing virgin birth produces page turner

book review

British novelist Clare Chambers’ latest work was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for fiction last year

British novelist Clare Chambers’ latest work was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for fiction last year

Photo credit: Shutterstock

When Jean Swinney receives a letter from a woman who says she gave birth virginally, this middle-aged journalist leading a serene life sets out to get to the bottom of the story. As she investigates the story of the small newspaper she works for, she grows dangerously close to the woman and her seemingly quiet family, and there is no shortage of discoveries, including those about herself. “Small Pleasures” is a novel set in 1950s South East London, when the expectations of women were ruthlessly unforgiving. Clare Chambers’ work was nominated for the Women’s Fiction Award last year.

A caretaker and roommate of her anxious mother, Swinney leads a regimented life, only allowing herself the occasional “little pleasures”. She’s the guy who every day decides to “break down later (…) between seven and half past seven, when she’s home from work and done her chores.”

Painting an amusing and slightly disturbing picture of life in the London suburbs, Chambers brilliantly weaves a tale of mystery and the fragility of human relationships. Towards the end of the book, you are well accustomed to your new surroundings and you hardly notice that you are in the past.

And yet, the importance of time is evident throughout the story, which is steeped in period details, such as fathers who died in war, Chelsea’s poverty, and plenty of smoking.

“Petits Plaisirs” is a book you won’t want to put down once you’re reading it. Still, it takes time to get used to. The dialogue sometimes sounds a bit unnatural and too often violates the “show, don’t tell” rule. It may be the 1950s setting, but some conversations sound strange to a modern ear.

It’s hard to imagine a child saying “because you’re too busy doing the best Sachertorte all over England” even 70 years ago – and assuming this particular child knows Sachertorte is.

Some of the characters seem all too ready to help Swinney on his quest, which is more than slightly peculiar. Few have trouble unearthing long-forgotten documents or details from a complete stranger, no questions asked. Thankfully, these flaws can be forgiven with the book’s clever storytelling.

Jean’s work as a journalist is present throughout the story, interrupted by the short articles she writes for the newspaper. It’s a clever way to give the reader a taste of what it was like to work as a female journalist in those days. As she works on her virgin birth play, hoping it will finally prove her mettle, she produces humorous clips such as: “The humble lettuce, if properly dressed, can be the basis of many nutritious family meals”.

Other highlights include stories about rose pruning and household chores. It’s clearly what society thought she was fit for and it’s a far cry from the glamorous career in journalism that many of her friends seem to imagine for her.

As you progress, the book reveals itself as a definite page turner and never disappoints in answering reader questions. It’s delightfully emotional, with a quiet celebration of love in all its forms pervading its atypical plot. A great read for the holidays or just a rainy day at home, the book’s setting and colorful characters offer something for everyone. The solution to its central riddle will keep you guessing until the very end.

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