As I work on my next novel, I have been thinking about the many ways a writer can keep a mystery alive through hundreds of pages. Clare Chambers' extraordinary new novel, Small Pleasures is a stunning accomplishment in that regard. It is a limited omniscient narrative from the point of view of Jean, a middle-aged woman who lives with her demanding and tiresome mother and works as a reporter for a small English newspaper in a London suburb. It is 1957 and a scientific study of parthenogenesis in "sea urchins, frogs, and rabbits" has just been released with the headline, "Men no longer needed for reproduction!"(3). Could parthenogenesis be possible in humans, queries the article. This prompts a letter from a woman named Mrs. Tilbury who claims that her ten-year old daughter was conceived without sperm and Jean, the only female reporter at the paper, is asked to investigate.
As she explores the woman's circumstances during the time of conception, which occurred when she was a resident in a nursing home where she was undergoing treatment for severe arthritis, each facet of her story appears to be true. The first series of lab tests on mother and daughter and interviews with people who were at the nursing home at the same time, seem to support her claim and yet, unfazed, remaining open to possibility, Jean continues to chase each clue that presents itself.
The mystery of the virgin birth is sustained for the entire novel as the reader follows Jean along the path of discovery and the great pleasure is our intimacy with a woman who observes everything around her with a keen, questioning mind. The reader knows that science will triumph eventually, but in the context of 1957 England, guided by a reporter who never misses a detail, what was originally a quest for truth turns into a deeply emotional experience for someone whose life seemed to be set in certainties: at home Jean is a slave to her mother's whims; on the job she is an efficient and dependable reporter and an easy companion to the men at the newspaper. As proof that the story is true accumulates, the reader finds herself doubting evidence; it is a form of involvement that unites us with Jean's quest.
The narrative moves at a slow pace and this is not a failing but rather, an essential reason the novel is so compelling. Details of Jean's life abound and because the core mystery saturates even unrelated details, including what she and her mother had for dinner (grilled lamb heart and mashed rutabaga) our senses are open and receptive and they stay that way for three hundred pages. Not even a long list of picnic provisions, including the unimaginable kidney pie, can dull them.
Why are we so receptive? What does Chambers do to keep her reader so attentive? Interview after interview, lab test after lab test, each appearing to support a claim that must be false, gives strength to the absurdity, and what everyone at the newspaper assumed would quickly be debunked, appears sound. There is a love interest of course, but it too develops at a deliciously slow pace, and that too adds to our investment in the outcome.
I believe that what keeps the momentum strong is the type of mystery we are presented with. It's a complicated one, spanning biology, myth, and Christianity, and tucked into it are all kinds of inhibitions and matters of privacy, especially in the world of 1950's England. And because the mystery that prompted her investigation is so expansive, the ordinary occurrences in her life (soaking tea towels in a tub of borax before she leaves the house) take on a heightened significance. We look for clues everywhere, even in the most mundane events, and when there is an interchange with hidden emotion as when Jean tells Mrs. Tilbury, "'I met someone the other day who wanted to be remembered to you. I wonder if you can guess,'" she notices "a flicker of uncertainty" crossing the other woman's face, "a faint blush [rising] to her cheeks. It took no more than a second for her to master herself and say, 'No, I can't. You'll have to tell me'"(59).
Later, when they are on a first name basis and she thinks of Mrs. Tilbury as Gretchen, "a look of utter desolation came over Gretchen's face when she believed herself unobserved. The fit of melancholy, or whatever it was, had lasted a few seconds; as soon as [her daughter] Margaret called her name, she had snapped to attention, rearranging her features with the brightest of smiles" (87). Whenever Jean notices a lapse in her subject's confident demeanor, she tucks it away as evidence that there is more to this story than first supposed. The lapses continue at well-spaced intervals throughout the novel, nursing our suspicions, adding a psychological depth that further expands the original mystery. Each glimpse of hidden turmoil acts like the Jamesian screw, tightening the narrative wire. Close to the end, Jean herself is pulled into the family drama and loses all objectivity. Another turn, the wire even tighter. "Sometimes Jean had the sense that they were adrift in a perilously overladen boat; a moment of emotional turbulence would be enough to capsize them"(195).
When a nurse who used to work at the convalescent home asks, "'Are you sure you want this?' and Jean responds with "a now-familiar sense of foreboding"(315), we know there won't be a black clad rapist climbing out a window, only and more compellingly, the mistakes and foibles of characters we once thought were ordinary.
Chambers, Clare. Small Pleasures. New York: Harper Collins, 2021.