A virgin birth is quite the topic for a novel, especially one set in suburban London in the 1940s. Greek and Roman mythology abound with tales of miraculous births. So too do the scriptures, with several instances to be found in the Bible, most notably the birth of Jesus.
In fiction, miraculous births are more difficult to find. Fiction demands a higher standard of plausibility than non-fiction, as every writer knows, which perhaps explains it. John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meaney is a rare instance of one, featuring a claim of a virgin birth by a dour couple who run a granite quarry in New Hampshire. Clare Chambers adds to this intriguing subgenre with her new novel, Small Pleasures.
The virgin birth in this case is reported in a letter to the North Kent Echo by a Mrs Tilbury living in Sidcup. Gretchen Tilbury has seen an article in the paper on parthenogenesis (the phenomenon whereby an embryo develops without sperm) in sea urchins, frogs and rabbits.
The newspaper splashes the story under the headline “Men No Longer Needed for Reproduction!”, prompting a slew of letters, including Mrs Tilbury’s. She claims to have conceived a child without the intervention of any man and offers her experience as evidence of parthenogenesis in humans. The newspaper’s only female reporter, Jean Swinney, is sent to investigate.
The narrative voice is perfectly in tune with the 1940s setting, but the virgin birth storyline hints at something far more interesting at play here
Jean is in her late 30s, single and living with a demanding, elderly mother. A self-described maiden aunt figure, she writes the household tips at the paper. Sour milk makes a good bleach for discoloured whites, we learn. An ironing board can be placed alongside a patient’s bed as an emergency table. Sawdust is excellent for cleaning carpets.
At the North Kent Echo, “it makes the front page if someone breaks into the British Legion and steals a bottle of gin.” The Sidcup virgin birth story is bound to make the front page and maybe even the nationals – if Jean can stand it up.
It’s hard at first to know what kind of a novel this is. The backdrop is the fair and pleasant England of home-grown rhubarb, hand-made dresses and polished brasses. The narrative voice is perfectly in tune with the 1940s setting, but the virgin birth storyline hints at something far more interesting at play here.
This is a novel about women’s lives, and Chambers reveals their many and complex histories alongside Jean’s household tips, but in the same highly restrained tone. The effect is one of great authenticity, as Chambers exposes life experiences that belie the genteel tone of the novel while continuing to conform to it.
Trauma and sorrow
Jean herself has experienced the trauma and sorrow of a love affair gone badly wrong. Her mother is a war widow who “doesn’t have an independent bone in her body”. She was abandoned by her husband before he was killed in an air raid, cheating her of the sympathy that would have been her due. Where another novel might drill down into these darker storylines, Small Pleasures ploughs resolutely ahead, as does Jean. These women’s lives are lived with varying degrees of cheer and fortitude, just like the recipes Jean writes for the North Kent Echo.
Small, everyday experiences are faithfully rendered in this story and there are flashes of wisdom throughout
The story is powered on by Jean’s investigation of Gretchen Tilbury’s implausible claim, which even her priest disbelieved. “You would think a priest of all people would be open to the idea of a virgin birth,” says Jean, but apparently priests are rather possessive about miracles. Medical examinations are carried out on both Mrs Tilbury and her child, while Jean investigates her backstory. In the process, Jean embarks on a love affair that gives the novel a beating heart.
The writing is so unassuming that it would be easy to miss how accomplished it is. Cliches are skilfully avoided and the atmosphere is richly portrayed, as in the ghastly guest house with a “mushroomy smell of wet mackintosh” where Jean and her mother spend a week’s unenviable holiday. Small, everyday experiences are faithfully rendered in this story and there are flashes of wisdom throughout, such as Jean’s observation that “people hide their feelings all the time”, and “who really knows what goes on in a marriage?”
Small Pleasures is an unusual novel. A perfectly pitched period piece, with an intriguing mystery driving it and a deeply affecting love story at its heart, it’s also a novel about the messy truths of women’s lives and their courage in making the best of that mess.