Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers

Clare Chambers' Small Pleasures is set on the outskirts of London's south-east suburbs in the late 1950s, where Jean Swinney, a newspaper reporter in her late 30s who lives with her needy, neurotic mother. Jean's days 'pass without great peaks and troughs of emotion', hence the small pleasures of the title: time alone to smoke a cigarette, a brand new library book, squirreling away a bar of chocolate to enjoy, or a glass of sherry before Sunday lunch. Her home life is claustrophobic while her job is a frustratingly mundane - as a rare woman reporter she's constantly asked to write the housekeeping tips and features on things like 'National Salad Week'.

However, things take a turn when the paper receives a letter from Gretchen Tilbury, a young woman who insists her 10-year-old daughter was a virgin birth, conceived while she was confined to a ward in a convent sanatorium for young girls, suffering from a disabling flare-up of rheumatoid arthritis. Gretchen's older husband, a quiet, rather dull jeweller called Howard, insists he had nothing to do with Margaret's conception, although upon marrying Gretchen he happily adopted Margaret as his own.

It's up to Jean to investigate the story and attempt to substantiate Gretchen's outlandish claim - but in the course of the investigation she becomes increasingly friendly with the Tilbury family. Gretchen, a talented seamstress, makes Jean a dress far nicer than anything in her dowdy wardrobe, and Jean delights the slightly eccentric Margaret with the gift of a pet rabbit. But despite her initial dislike, it's Howard that Jean finds herself increasingly drawn to.

For a book that's so determinedly low-key in nature, with no grand gestures, no overwrought expressions of emotion or furious conflicts, and a gentle suburban setting, Small Pleasures manages to cram an awful lot into its pages - it's almost two books in one, and each of the two main plot strands could almost stand alone.

To begin with, there's the mystery of Margaret's conception. Could Gretchen really be capable of asexual reproduction? And if she's not, how did she manage to conceive a child while bed-bound and under supervision in an environment without any men? In the absence of DNA testing, the process of determining whether Gretchen is Margaret's sole biological parent is a long and invasive one involving multiple hospital visits, so it's up to Jean to investigate in the meantime. Her attempt to piece together the puzzle becomes a detective story in its own right, complete with its own characters and twists.

Then there Jean's relationship with the Tilburys, with all its awkward social navigations and emotional repression. It's strongly reminiscent of Barbara Pym or Anita Brookner, with shades of Brief Encounter if Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard were considerably less well-off and attractive and never knew what to wear. It's full of quiet resignation and observational wit as well as the small pleasures of the title, and Jean is an engagingly pragmatic, acerbic protagonist - and yet there are moments that are painfully sad, and all the more so for the spareness with which they're expressed.

I've obviously no intention of revealing how Small Pleasures ends, although I will say that I've seen a lot of other readers being very critical of the denouement. I can certainly understand why, and my own feelings about it are at best complicated, but I also don't think it's out of step with the rest of the book and it doesn't stop Small Pleasures from being one my top reads of 2021.