I’ll admit that I do quite often pick books based on their cover, so when I saw Small Pleasures with its aesthetic teal and tangerine design, I was drawn to it. I expected it to be something like The French Girl or The Heatwave – a crime thriller set in Europe. But when I flipped it over to read the blurb, it was nothing of the sort.
The description read: “1957, the suburbs of South East London. Jean Swinney is a journalist on a local paper, trapped in a life of duty and disappointment from which there is no likelihood of escape.
“When a young woman, Gretchen Tilbury, contacts the paper to claim that her daughter is the result of a virgin birth, it is down to Jean to discover whether she is a miracle or a fraud.
“As the investigation turns her quiet life inside out, Jean is suddenly given an unexpected chance at friendship, love and – possibly – happiness. But there will, inevitably, be a price to pay.”
You had me at journalist. I love a character that I can see a slither of myself in, and frankly, the description of this book is a familiar occurrence on local papers. A few months into my role as a local journo, I found myself on the phone to a lady in her 80s claiming to have seen the ghost of Hitler in the local hospital. I went to visit her at her house and listened to her tell of how she’d fallen out of favour with her neighbours, took a tumble taking out the wheelie bins and lay on the wet floor of her patio for 24 hours until someone found her. She said an angel came to visit her, and just when she’d accepted death as her fate, a chimney sweep turned up and called an ambulance. I found myself in a similar predicament to the protagonist of Small Pleasures – do I believe her?
The notion of someone calling the office and claiming a virgin birth really isn’t that far fetched, and so, I was excited to see how this novel panned out.
Author Clare Chambers was born in south east London in 1966, nine years after her book was set – and has written nine novels, the latest being Small Pleasures, released in 2020. It won Book of the Year for The Times, Daily Telegraph, Evening Standard, Daily Express, Metro, Spectator, Red Magazine and Good Housekeeping.
Within the first few pages, I had a good giggle to myself as it described editorial meetings as ‘a dull affair involving the planning and distribution of duties for the week, and a post-mortem of the errors and oversights in the previous issue’. Which was accurate two years ago until the majority of UK newsrooms moved to homeworking in the pandemic.
Jean – a 39-year-old singles feature writer – lands the virgin birth story following a letter from Gretchen Tilbury claiming she conceived 10-year-old Margaret without the involvement of men. The journalist sets upon an investigation (a far lengthier one than a modern journalist would ever be allowed) whereby she attempts to prove, or disprove Gretchen’s claim.
Small Pleasures sees intricate character studies with the slightest of words or actions hinting at the inevitable affairs that ensue as the novel wears on. Whilst each chapter begs the question ‘was it a miracle or not?’, you find yourself far more invested in the characters rather than the article – much like Jean herself does. The plot is somewhat predictable in parts, but in a way that satisfies the reader, rather than irks them.
I should have been prepared for the stark ending, but absolutely wasn’t, despite the foreshadow. I don’t want to say too much, as I feel forgetting that detail made the ending even more emotional and shocking. The afterword from Clare that followed was absolutely beautiful, revealing that the inspiration for the book came from a radio segment discussing research by Helen Spurway, which led to speculation of whether or not spontaneous parthenogenesis (virgin conception) was possible in humans. There was a woman that came forward following her paper and underwent tests not to dissimilar to the ones in Small Pleasures. The ending of the novel was also based on a true historic event, making it all the more poignant.
Small Pleasures is a maturely written, heartbreaking story of love, loneliness, betrayal and loss. It’s very different to books I’d typically pick, but I’m certainly glad the cover caught my eye.