For all the insightful and valuable ways in which the novel as an art form is conceptualized, studied, and discussed, for that slippery person, the “average reader”—whom all of us, including the most austere critic, represent—there is perhaps nothing so pleasing as an author who knows her audience and consistently delivers. Stylistic and formal innovations, experiments with story or plot, genre-defying books challenging the limits of the from—these are all rewarding and important members of the literary community, but a fresh release from a well-loved author can often be the most gratifying. It is in this light Claire Chambers, a writer who has established herself as a prominent and accomplished novelist with a wide audience, has come through once more with her latest book, Small Pleasures.
Chambers prides story above all else, and moves immediately into the action from the opening pages. Our protagonist, Jean, is a refreshingly original one. Nearly forty in the summer of 1957, she works as a reporter for the London-area newspaper North Kent Echo. Single and living with her demanding, overbearing mother, she experiences occasional pangs of regret about never having children of her own amid daily chores and mundane shopping trips. While she takes obvious pride in her work, at the beginning of the book Jean is a character classically hemmed in, both by her mother and the tightly-drawn parameters of her work with the newspaper. Chambers quickly and deftly establishes this state of affairs. Jean’s stable if unspectacular life is upended within the initial chapters when a woman writes to the newspaper claiming to have experienced a virgin birth. Moved off her typical work and supported by her editor, Jean devotes herself to researching the case and finding the truth, uncovering much about her own life in the process.
The themes here are quickly made apparent and brought to the fore. Jean’s ongoing spinsterhood is thrown into stark relief with the supposedly miraculous Mrs. Tilbury and her immaculately conceived daughter, Margaret. With the latter inspiring Jean’s thoughts on her own childlessness, Chambers smoothly positions herself to explore her concerns of domesticity, gender expectations, and motherhood. In tracking down the truth behind the story, Jean reckons with a society that frequently dismisses the opinions, thoughts, and assertions of women—one, in that way, all too familiar to our own age, seven decades notwithstanding.
Chambers’ straightforward and useful narrative patterning creates an accessible, relatable story that never allows itself to become sidetracked or drawn astray. Moving with the brisk pace of a London morning, we follow Jean across the plot from scene to scene, often opening with a specific moment before transitioning into exposition designed to inform the audience of the internal and external events since the last chapter. While it is an approach that takes few chances in style or form, it has an obvious and fulfilled purpose, clearing the narrative decks for Jean and the pursuit of her remarkable journalistic white whale.
Intertwined nicely with the central plot—and given a rather surprising, if welcome, amount of attention given the book’s overall ethos—is the geo-temporal location. 1957 England, London especially but not exclusively, is rich and vibrantly presented, paying off the extensive research Chambers even mentions in her acknowledgments. From the general tone and mood down to dress and colloquial speech—notably, the characters’ simple mentioning of “the war” feels especially authentic—mid-century England is a fine example of a completely drawn and theoretically sound backdrop; no historical time period for its own frivolous sake here, as is all too often the case. Instead, the setting of Small Pleasures is inexorably wound up in its plot, as Jean’s oppressing tensions—her conventional mother, the limits placed on her by social convention, and the challenges of working in a male-dominated industry—give life and propulsion to the book as a whole.
That readership Chambers enjoys as a result of her successful career will recognize and admire the clear-eyed prose and emotionally resonant storytelling that dominates the genetic makeup of Small Pleasures, her eight book. Jean’s dutiful nature, her inner preoccupation with custom and appearance, and her solid moral character juxtapose nicely with the central plotline. Beneath her quiet and tactful demeanor is a true drive for journalistic truth, and a determination to remain open to the facts, and a willingness to treat honestly everyone that serves her well in her journey. As the book progresses, and the story becomes ever more mysterious, Jean’s transformation is never far from the center, nor is her relatability as a protagonist in doubt.
Small Pleasures is, ultimately, a work that lives up to its title. Jean’s contrast between the simple, decorum-focused Edwardian world of her mother and the shrewd, insightful manner in which she navigates a male-dominated career space provide Chambers an organic opportunity to comment on the societal norms and limitations of both 1957 England and, by subtle implication, today. By never taking the little things in life for granted, and by focusing on the details, Jean both gives focus to a solid story and proves herself as an investigative journalist. The simple, straightforward approach is the right one, both for Chambers and her central character. Indeed, it is here where her highly accessible prose and eminently navigable narrative technique, while perhaps a touch too risk-averse and clean-cut for some, serve her well vis-a-vis the book’s raison d’être. By the end, the style used in Small Pleasures manages, much like the good journalist who serves as its heroine, to present the facts without getting in the way of the story, and makes for a book that will satisfy its audience.
by Clare Chambers
Published on October 12, 2021
D. W. White writes consciousness-forward fiction and criticism. Currently pursuing his Ph.D. in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago, he serves as Founding Editor of L’Esprit Literary Review and Fiction Editor for West Trade Review. His writing appears in 3:AM, The Florida Review, Another Chicago Magazine, Necessary Fiction, and Chicago Review of Books, among several others. Before returning to Chicago, he lived in Long Beach, California, for nine years.