Woman reporter chasing virgin birth yields page-turner
When Jean Swinney receives a letter from a woman who says she gave a virginal birth, this middle-aged journalist leading a dispassionate life sets out to get to the bottom of the story. As she investigates the story for the small paper she works for, she gets dangerously close to the woman and her seemingly untroubled family, and there is no lack of discoveries - including ones about herself. “Small Pleasures” is a novel set in 1950s southeast London, when expectations towards women were ruthlessly unforgiving. The work by Clare Chambers was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for fiction last year.
A caretaker and roommate to her anxious mother, Swinney lives a regimented life, only allowing herself the odd “small pleasure” from time to time. She is the type who each day decides to “collapse later (...) between seven and seven-thirty, when she had got home from work and done her chores”.
Painting an amusing and slightly disturbing picture of life in London’s suburbs, Chambers brilliantly weaves together a tale of mystery and the fragility of human relations. Towards the end of the book, you are well-used to your new environment, and you barely notice you are in the past.
And yet the significance of time is evident throughout the story, which is impregnated with details about the period, such as fathers deceased at war, Chelsea's poverty, and a lot of cigarette smoking.
“Small Pleasures” is a book you will not want to leave once you’re on your way reading it. Yet it does take time to warm up to it. The dialogue rings slightly unnatural at times, and violates the “show, don’t tell” rule too often. Maybe it is the 1950s setting, but some conversations just feel odd to a modern ear.
It is hard to picture a child saying “Because you are too busy making the best Sachertorte in the whole of England” even 70 years ago - and assuming that this particular child knows what Sachertorte is.
Some of the characters seem all too ready to help Swinney with her quest, which is more than slightly peculiar. Few have a problem with unearthing long-forgotten documents or details to a total stranger, no questions asked. Thankfully, these faults can be forgiven because of the book's clever narrative.
Jean’s work as a journalist features throughout, the story interrupted by the short pieces she writes for the newspaper. It is a smart way to give the reader a glimpse into what it was like to work as a female journalist at that time. As she works on her piece on virginal birth, hoping it will finally allow her to prove her mettle, she produces humorous clips such as: “The humble lettuce, if properly dressed, can be the foundation of many nutritious family meals”.
Other highlights include stories about pruning roses and household chores. Clearly that is what society thought she was fit to do and it is far from the glamorous career in journalism many of her friends seem to imagine for her.
As you proceed, the book, it reveals itself as a definite page-turner, and never disappoints in answering the reader’s questions. It is delightfully emotional, with a quiet celebration of love in all its forms permeating its atypical plot. A great read for a holiday or just a rainy day at home, the book’s setting and its colourful characters provide something for everyone. The solution to its central enigma will keep you on your toes until the very end.