“Small pleasures – the first cigarette of the day; a glass of sherry before Sunday lunch; a bar of chocolate parcelled out to last a week; a newly published library book, still pristine and untouched by other hands; the first hyacinths of spring; a neatly folded pile of ironing, smelling of summer; the garden under snow; an impulsive purchase of stationery for her drawer……….”
It’s not until ten pages before the end that we get this list of small pleasures, the consolations of a life of duty and frustration and narrow horizons in a 1950’s London suburb. And by the time we stumble across it, it seems not as pinched or pathetic as it might to our jaded and pampered twenty-first century eyes. Rather, these are the well-deserved daily rewards of an admirable character, who has the misfortune to live as a single, professional woman with no emotional sustenance in a man’s world. And a world where duty to one’s elders trumps any pursuit of individual fulfillment.
There is much to admire here. The evocation of 1950’s England, just before the revolution of social attitudes of the Sixties, is pitch perfect. You can feel the stultifying walls and ceiling closing in on Jean, the protagonist, in every description of cooking mince and potatoes for dinner, of her pleasure in the space afforded her by her Sunday bath ritual, of soaking the tea towels in borax. As Morrisey put it all those years ago, at that time in England, “every day was like Sunday”. Younger readers may wish to consult with their grandparents about this. It’s not that long ago that Sunday in the UK was like a living death, with nothing and nowhere open, nothing on the telly except Songs of Praise, and nothing you were allowed to eat, except roast beef and vegetables boiled to a mush, and sunday tea of salad cream and battenburg.
Chambers uses a real event, the fatal rail accident at Charing Cross in 1957 to anchor her story. The opening news article establishes Jean’s world of journalism, and the inevitability that someone will die by the end of the novel. The sense of dread increases as we approach the ending. Someone will die in this event, we just don’t know who. And like everything else in the novel, Chambers, manipulates that expertly, to squeeze out the maximum poignancy from a tragic situation. The structure is provided by her journalistic pursuit of the truth in a bizarre case of claimed virgin birth. The scientific medical investigation propels us towards a hidden story of love and loss, and provokes a crisis of the same in the present. And all of this is done via Chambers’ beautiful prose style, which is restrained and elegant, a n pleasure in itself.
This was a real surprise for me. I had not come across Chambers before and heard about the book on the grapevine. It’s one of my books of the year, and I will certainly be diving into her back catalogue for more.