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Review: Small Pleasures, by Clare Chambers

Clare Chambers has several critically acclaimed novels of different genres behind her. Chambers stated that the idea for Small Pleasures (longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021) came from an interview on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour about a woman who in 1955 claimed to have given birth whilst still a virgin, an idea which stuck with her ‘like flypaper’.

I found Small Pleasures absolutely enthralling. It is set in 1957 in and around London and really seems to convey the development from the post-war years to the life-changing years of the sixties. It tells a number of intertwined stories of loves lost and found and lives impacted by the investigation into a possible virgin birth. The central characters are so beautifully portrayed that I truly cared about them. Gretchen Tilbury, believing her daughter Margaret’s birth to have been parthenogenic, asks for the help of Jean Swinney, a local journalist, to prove her case. Jean finds Margaret, now ten years old, and Gretchen so engaging that she agrees and starts her investigations into the science and the history of the family, including Howard who is a loving husband and father to the pair.

Before meeting the Tilbury family Jean’s work involved writing columns about gardening and top tips for keeping a home (being the only woman on the team – albeit just ‘one of the chaps’). Her life, including her very predictable days and difficult relationship with her difficult mother, changed as a result of her investigations and her growing relationships with each of the Tilburys.

I cannot say much more about the storylines without spoiling them but the various threads and twists and turns were lovely, surprising and powerful. I felt as though I was there with them, invested in their lives and wishing I could help them through their various trials.

Reviewed by Library Member (audiobook)