Book Of The Week, 30th August 2021

Clare Chambers: Small Pleasures Orion Publishing Co, 2021. PB, £8.99.

The novel centres on Jean Swinney, nearly 40 years old, unfulfilled and stuck in her everyday life. Jean cares for a neurotic, suffocatingly dependent mother, while dealing with the mundanities of her job at the local newspaper.

Chambers evokes a stolid, suburban sense of days “passing without great peaks and troughs of emotion”. Jean takes her solace where she can find it: “Small pleasures – the first cigarette of the day; a glass of sherry before Sunday lunch (…).” Jean’s life seems to get a little more exciting when her editor suggests that she interviews “Our Lady of Sidcup”, a Swiss-German seamstress named Gretchen Tilbury who claims to have given birth to a daughter without the involvement of a man.

Jean is instantly charmed by Gretchen’s congeniality, and her daughter Margaret. We follow Jean trying to solve this mystery while she is getting more and more attached to the family, finding friendship and love when she least expected it. Maybe there is hope for her after all? But there is this virgin birth claim she has to investigate…

Chambers’ novel is set in a period before DNA testing could have provided conclusive proof and manages to keep the reader guessing to the end,

Glorious piece of storytelling, witty and sharp, combining powerful emotions and awful revelations with compassion and quiet humour in such a beautiful way that you won’t want to put down this book until it’s finished!