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
I don’t know about you but – less the cigarette and sherry – that list of small pleasures seem really quite wonderful!
And for Jean Swinney, the protagonist of Chambers’ Women’s Prize Longlisted novel, they are the things that get her through a typical week. They are the compensations for the tedium of a fairly minor career writing household hints and court reports for the local newspaper, The North Kent Echo; and for the trials of looking after her anxious and fractious mother in the 1950s. Hers is a life of routine and domestic chores and duty and satisfying in its own right.
Satisfying, that is, until her life is disrupted by a letter received by her newspaper in which a young woman, Gretchen Tillbury, claims that her ten year old daughter Margaret had been born “without the involvement of any man” – a veritable virgin birth.
Her claims are met with the expected cynicism and in some cases derision but Jean is dispatched to investigate and finds her to be credible and the reader, despite our own rational misgivings, go along with her. Gretchen charms Jean with her immaculate home, her baking of Swiss delicacies – Sachertorte and spitzboben – and her dress making. And the alleged miracle daughter, Margaret, was an instant delight to Jean. Neither seem to have anything to gain by lying: despite the taboos against unmarried mothers in the 1950s, Gretchen has married and she and her husband appear to be raising Gretchen with no one in the community being aware of her situation.
And so Jean embarks on her investigations. Our obvious recourse would be to DNA and a few swabs and a few weeks waiting would have resolved the dilemma. In 1957 however, that was not a technique available and so Jean embarks on what is in essence a detective story. The hospital in which Gretchen was a resident at the time of alleged conception is visited and explored; the nurses and other patients are interviewed and cross referenced; documents and diaries are analysed; medical experts are drafted in to compare Gretchen and Margaret’s bloods, serum and attempt skin grafts. Those claims prove trickier than expected to disprove: the dates fit, everyone agrees that no man had access to Gretchen’s ward, the science cannot prove otherwise.
This plot, however, is not, however, the heart of the story.
Amidst the wonderfully captured historical details – rich and sensory and vivid – is the story of Jean’s growing feelings for Howard, Gretchen’s husband, a man for whom the word diffident was invented! He is unprepossessing when Gretchen first meets him, but quietly moves from awkward professional acquaintance to friend to something more intimate. The quiet, intimate passion of
a plain middle-aged woman in slippers and an even older man with thinning hair and heavy-rimmed glasses.
These are hardly auspicious romantic leads, perhaps! And they are both so nice to each other and everyone else. Despite the issues in his marriage, Howard had never strayed because to do so
would be shabby behaviour, in my view.
And Chambers goes to lengths to ensure that he remains unshabby, untarnished, even as he and Jean get closer. He is chivalrous, an everyday knight and yet also credibly real.
And this made such a change from the angst of some of the millenial characters I have come across recently in Luster, Exciting Times, Queenie, Such A Fun Age… and I say that knowing that it probably says a lot more about me and my age – and possibly my slight concern as to whether I am using the term “Millenial” correctly – than anything else! And perhaps it helped me that the locale was familiar being a Kentish man myself! And the characters so reminded me of my own grandparents – the quiet dignity of doing the best they could and being decent folks in difficult circumstances.
One of those difficulties is Mrs Swinney, Jean’s mother, essentially housebound through what we might recognise as social anxiety, irascible and dependent on Jean with whom she lives, especially as the sister Dorrie
was married to a coffee farmer and lived in Kenya, which might as well have been Venus as far as Jean was concerned, so remote and unimaginable was her new life.
Her spikiness, her irascibility and her manipulation were wonderfully crafted, right on the cusp of
There were, for me, one or two jarring notes in the novel. The speed with which Jean becomes part of the Tillbury family is one, aided by the positioning of Jean as Margaret’s “unofficial aunt”; the way that Howard and Jean accept the Sapphic nature of a particular relationship with a very twenty-first century openness was another striking me with its anachronism. And I wasn’t sure that the representation of lesbian love was handled well as representation – that was the only time when the characters felt shabby, perhaps even sordid, and unhealthy, manipulative and borderline abusive. My biggest issue, however, was with the revelations surrounding Margaret’s birth and Jean’s decision to keep certain critical facts secret from the Tillburys… that struck me as against her character and very morally questionable, not to mention potentially dangerous.
Despite those note, however, there is so much to commend this novel: the depth and quality of Chambers’ writing is exceptional and her command of the period detail is superb. I adored the evocation of Kentish summers, playing tennis in a sun drenched lawn or shinnying up apple trees at harvest time in the sprawling grounds of Aunt Edie’s orchard as well as the Swinneys’ rainy holidays in Lymington and half-hearted trip to Beaulieu “even though neither of them had any great interest in motoring” – those set piece moments were exquisite. But, above all, the warmth and joy of the characters, their vibrancy on the page, made this novel sing for me. I adored both Jean and Howard and I was rooting for them to find a way to be together – a way that did not mire them in shabbiness!
The other aspect of this novel which some – many – reviewers balked at was the ending and the introduction of the Lewisham Train disaster – a real historical event – into the narrative. I get the issues. It does feel more than a little bolted on in my opinion, and the decision to introduce it in the foreword did mean that throughout the book you were playing the game of guess-who-will-be-in-the-train-crash… but the ending was handled subtly enough for me. It did not detract – not for me.
And I loved which book with a quiet warmth and charm and pathos – and I know that it will linger in the memory.
Plot / Pace:
Page Count: 368
Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Date: 16th April 2020