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26Jul

Small Pleasure by Clare Chambers review – suburbia's silent sorrows

Clare Chambers deftly conjures pinched postwar lives – and a possible virgin birth

In 1956, the Lancet published research into the possibility of parthenogenesis – virgin birth – in humans. The Sunday Pictorial had put out a call for women who believed they had experienced the phenomenon; of the 19 who came forward, all were eventually discredited except one, whose story is the partial inspiration for Clare Chambers’s seventh novel, her first in 10 years.

Small Pleasures is, as its title hints, a novel about people who have settled for lives that are less than they’d hoped for, but with a typically English middle-class sense that they mustn’t grumble. The war and its deprivations are only a decade past; bomb damage is still visible in the London landscape. Jean Swinney, a spinster on the cusp of 40, is the only female reporter on the North Kent Echo and therefore charged – to her dismay – with weekly columns on housekeeping and gardening tips. It’s a novelty when the editor sends her to investigate the claims of a Mrs Gretchen Tilbury of Sidcup, who says she conceived her daughter while still a virgin. The evidence seems plausible enough, but as Jean accompanies Gretchen and little Margaret to tests at the Charing Cross hospital, she finds herself growing closer to the Tilbury family, including Gretchen’s husband, Howard, and her professional detachment becomes increasingly compromised even as she begins to suspect the truth about Margaret’s conception.

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