An Investigation Into a Virgin Birth Upends Lives in This Sly English Novel

By Virginia Feito

SMALL PLEASURES
By Clare Chambers

It’s June 1957, and The North Kent Echo, a suburban English newspaper, has received a letter from a woman declaring that her daughter, now 10, was the result of a virgin birth. The only female journalist at the paper, the sensible Jean Swinney, resigns herself to taking the assignment to investigate the woman’s claims (“It’s women’s interest, after all,” the news editor says dismissively). Jean’s skepticism is challenged when witnesses corroborate that the letter writer was bedridden and under constant vigilance in an all-female medical ward at the time of her daughter’s conception, making any sort of sexual activity nigh impossible.

This is the starting point of “Small Pleasures,” the British novelist Clare Chambers’s first work of fiction in nearly 10 years, and although the mystery of the virgin birth drives the plot along, it becomes an almost incidental backdrop in a novel that is quietly affecting in unexpected ways. Jean’s days revolve around her work at the paper, where she is treated as “one of the chaps,” and the care of her disagreeable, stiflingly needy mother. The pleasures in her life are small indeed, her indulgences limited to the occasional cigarette and ice cream, and to admiring a drawer full of trinkets she collects — soaps, perfume, stationery, still in their original packaging. All the characters in “Small Pleasures” seem to be struggling: trapped in an unhappy marriage; suffering abuse from an aging relative in the throes of senility; or, in one particularly harrowing case, resigned to an existence transpiring entirely within a coffinlike iron lung.

As Jean spends time with the woman she is investigating, who is revealed to be an attractive dressmaker, she chances upon a family life she covets, including a charming daughter and a husband with whom Jean guiltily begins to fall in love. The dressmaker, in turn, does not appear happy in her seemingly idyllic marriage, harboring repressed wishes of her own. Again and again, however, characters choose duty — which Jean pictures as a “woman, tall and gaunt, with long hair scraped back into a bun” — over happiness, as Chambers examines, sympathetically and incisively, how much self-sacrifice people should bear at the expense of their personal freedom.

The most captivating glimpse of Jean’s oppressive self-denial comes during a weeklong trip with her mother to a coastal town, where they are stranded indoors along with other hotel guests during a heavy rain. The holiday is depicted with such sharp hilarity, including scenes of the endlessly complaining elderly Mrs. Swinney, it could be unfolding in a Jane Austen drawing room.

After sensitively elucidating her characters’ private hopes, Chambers proceeds to crush them in a series of cruel little twists. The virgin birth at the heart of the novel becomes the ultimate symbol of the lengths to which we delude ourselves in the name of hope, “that treacherous friend.” Religious belief serves as a beacon that characters cling to for self-preservation. The dressmaker reassuringly explains away the worrying voices her daughter occasionally hears as belonging to angels; the same faith is what gives the woman in the iron lung the strength to bear her condition, and the means by which she rationalizes the male visitor who appears uninvited at her bedside: “Angels are always male, aren’t they?”

With discreet wit and dry humor, Chambers captures the hypocrisy of an era that was so punitive for women. (Jean recounts how a doctor savored telling her she’d probably never be able to bear a child after she’d suffered through a clandestine abortion.) Peppering old household tips between chapters as sly commentary on the action — “Good uses for sour milk,” for example, appears when things begin to sour toward the end — Chambers reproduces the everyday minutiae of postwar British suburbia, from a dust-colored wool skirt to a pudding made of tinned pears and evaporated milk. Her language is beautiful, achieving what only the most skilled writers can: big pleasure wrought from small details.

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