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‘Small Pleasures’ by Clare Chambers ****

Reliant as I have become upon my local library for the few new releases which I want to pick up straight away, I have become accustomed to waiting for quite a long time for my reservations. I was not prepared for the waiting list for Clare Chambers’ Small Pleasures, though; I sat as patiently as I could for months, and found that over twenty people were lined up for the same copy once I’d finally finished with it.

I am so pleased to report that Small Pleasures was worth the few months it took to get to me, and I am thrilled that the novel is getting so much attention. Small Pleasures was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021, which is probably why so many people are longing to read it. Before this, the buzz about Small Pleasures was spread largely through word of mouth, and the incredibly positive reviews which have appeared in all manner of publications, as well as the staggering number of ‘Best Books of 2020’ lists which it appeared on.

In 1957, in the suburbs of the southeast of London and Kent, our protagonist Jean Swinney works as a journalist for a local newspaper, the North Kent Echo. She is ‘trapped in a life of duty and disappointment from which there is no likelihood of escape’. She lives in a small house with her demanding mother, who has not left the house very often in years, and feels tired with the drudgery of everyday life. Things change, however, when a young woman named Gretchen Tilbury sends a letter to the newspaper, claiming that her daughter, Margaret, is the result of a virgin birth, ‘without the involvement of any man’. Of course, the investigation becomes Jean’s responsibility; she is described as ‘features editor, columnist, dogsbody and the only woman at the table’ in the newspaper office.

When the women first meet one another, Jean asks Gretchen how her pregnancy occurred. Gretchen replies: ‘”I don’t know. I’m not a scientist. I’m not religious like my mother. I only know what didn’t happen.”‘ She goes on to explain that for a four-month stretch, she was bedridden in a hospital, and later found out that she had become pregnant during this time. Jean, on the receiving end of this news, ‘was unable to hide her surprise at this revelation. It seemed to provide an unexpected level of corroboration to Mrs Tilbury’s account. Her claim had suddenly become much harder to dismiss and to Jean’s surprise, she was glad. For reasons that were not just to do with journalistic hunger for a good story, she wanted it to be true.’

From the very beginning, one of Chambers’ real strengths is clearly the way in which she so effectively sets the scene and period. Early on, when Jean is running errands after work, Chambers writes the following, capturing so much detail: ‘By the time she reached home, a modest 1930s semi backing on to the park, her cheerful mood had evaporated. Somehow, in transferring the waxed paper package of liver to her tartan shopping bag she managed to drip two spots of blood on the front of her dust-coloured wool skirt.’

I love novels with mysteries at their heart, and Small Pleasures held every iota of my attention throughout. There is a wry humour which suffuses the whole, which I very much enjoyed. The entirety of the novel is highly readable, and I was pulled right into Jean’s world. I love the way in which the relationship between Jean and the Tilburys unfolded, and not wishing to give anything away, will be leaving the rest of the details of the plot out of this review. Needless to say, some elements are rather predictable, and others took me entirely by surprise. For Jean, being noticed by the family meant so much: ‘It was impossible not to be flattered and charmed by their interest, to blossom and expand in their company and become the interesting woman they thought her.’

I must admit that despite Small Pleasures being Chambers’ seventh novel, I had never heard of her before picking this up. It is her first publication in a decade, so perhaps she just passed me by beforehand. I have read some of the blurbs of her other books, and feel that she is an author whose other work I could really enjoy too, so I will definitely be picking some of them up in future. Chambers, with her acute observations on everyday life, and her sharp humour, put me in mind of Anita Brookner and Barbara Pym – a very high compliment, indeed.

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‘The Hours Before Dawn’ by Celia Fremlin ****

Celia Fremlin’s 1958 debut novel, The Hours Before Dawn, which has been recently reissued by Faber & Faber, sounded utterly splendid.  The novel, which won the Edgar Award for Best Novel in 1960, marked the beginning of Fremlin’s prolific career, in which she went on to publish sixteen novels in all.  Fremlin’s metier, says Laura Wilson’s intelligent and informative introduction, ‘was psychological suspense in a domestic setting; no grand guignol or melodrama, but something a thousand times creeper and more insidious in its small-scale, suburban gentility.’   A forgotten period novel, lost to the annals of time, which contains an awful lot of psychological tension, was wholly appealing to me.

9780571338122The novel, which focuses upon a young mother named Louise Henderson, and details her troubles of sleepless nights following the birth of her youngest child, is based upon the experiences which Fremlin herself had.  It opens with just this issue: ‘I’d give anything – anything – for a night’s sleep…’.  Louise has two school-age daughters, and a new baby named Michael.  She ‘struggles to service the needs of her family, keep things on an even keel with husband Mark, keep the noise down for the neighbours and keep up appearances in middle-class London.’  Her life is stagnant, and stuck in a rut; she continually has to perform the same tasks day after day, and the majority of these revolve around her children: ‘The dull, relentless daylight of a wet spring evening was still undiminished; it seemed to go on – and on – and on.  Would it never be time to switch on the lights, draw the curtains, and let it slip back into firelit winter again?’  Louise does not have a great support network around her; or, arguably, much of one at all.  Mark is very much of the view that it is a mother’s, rather than a father’s, prerogative to look after the children; he implores Louise to make his life easier without making any efforts of his own: ‘”You’ve got to see that Michael stops crying at night.  You can’t expect anyone else to put up with it.  I’ve had just about all I can stand myself.”‘

Following Michael’s birth, the Hendersons find that they have to take in a lodger to make ends meet; Miss Vera Brandon comes along, and Louise soon feels a growing uncertainty about her: ‘Miss Brandon, in both voice and appearance, gave the impression of being a successful woman of the world, both critical and self-assured; not at all the sort of person whom one would expect to choose for her house an inconvenient, ill-equipped attic in someone else’s house.’

The Hours Before Dawn begins in an Infant Weighing Clinic; Louise tells the nurse that Michael cries all the way through the night, and will not settle.  Her discomfort with her son, and his with her, is made immediately apparent: ‘As she spoke, she jiggled Michael with mounting violence, feeling through her palms, through her thighs, the tide of boredom rising within him.  Harder – harder – it was like baling out a boat when you know without any doubt that the water will win in the end…’.

Louise is constantly surprised by rather awkward situations that occur.  When Vera comes into the family’s lounge when she is breastfeeding Michael, for instance, Louise is at first embarrassed, and then unsettled, talking quickly in order to divert attention from her bodily exposure: ‘Louise stopped, uneasily conscious that she was beginning to run on about her children in just the kind of way that up-to-date mothers must be so careful to avoid.  To talk shop if you are a mother is not socially permissible as it is if you are a typist or a bus conductor.’

Fremlin realistically draws her characters with just a few deft strokes of her pen.  Of Louise’s youngest daughter, she writes: ‘Harriet, smaller, darker, carrying nothing, free as air, flew past her woebegone sister, skimming like a dryad across the crowded pavement and into Louise’s arms’.  Louise certainly has an easier relationship with her daughters than with her son, but her lack of sleep and constant worry certainly affects every member of her family, sooner or later.

Written in, and of, a period in which ‘gender-demarcation was well-night absolute and motherhood fetishised as woman’s highest calling’, The Hours Before Dawn still holds much relevance for the modern woman.  Its prose is nuanced and modern in its feel.  The novel is immersive, and has none of the telltale signs which one might associate with a debut.  Fremlin has found her voice in The Hours Before Dawn, and her writing appears to be more practised than practising.  Fremlin’s pace is spot on, and she builds tension and terror admirably.  The denouement is both surprising and clever, and I for one cannot wait to discover the rest of her work.

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1950s Women’s Stories

Below are a few books which I’ve read, all of which were written in the 1950s about the lives of women in that era. Not exactly chick lit, but great vintage reading. Virago also has several from this era that are excellent.

‘Marjorie Morningstar’ by Herman Wouk

– Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wauk (1955)
– Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis (1955) – famous as a film and stage play, the book is still the
best for the comedic effect
The Best Of Everything by Rona Jaffe (1958)
The Group by Mary McCarthy (1954)
The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy (1958)
Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth (1959)
The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns (1959)
Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell (1958)
Peyton Place by Grace Metalious (1955)
Giant by Edna Ferber (1952)
The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay (1956)
Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote (1958)

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‘The Journals of Sylvia Plath: 1950-1962’, edited by Karen V. Kukil *****

‘The Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962’ (Faber & Faber)

Sylvia Plath’s Journals have just been reissued by Faber & Faber.  In this new edition, edited by Karen V. Kukil, the Associate Curator of Special Collections at Smith College,  ‘an exact and complete transcription of the journals kept by Sylvia Plath during the last twelve years of her life’ has been included, and ‘there are no omissions, deletions or corrections of Plath’s words in this edition’. Her journals, says Kukil, ‘are characterized by the vigorous immediacy with which she records her inner thoughts and feelings and the intricacies of her daily life’.  She goes on to explain the way in which, ‘Every effort has been made… to give the reader direct access to Sylvia Plath’s actual words without interruption or interpretation’.

The main body of the diary spans from its beginnings in July 1950 to 1959, and the appendices stretch up to 1962, the year in which Plath committed suicide at the age of thirty.  The entirety is unabridged, and has been taken from twenty three original manuscripts in the Sylvia Plath Collection at Smith College in Massachusetts.  They document her ‘student years at Smith College and Newnham College, Cambridge, her marriage to Ted Hughes, and two years of teaching and writing in New England’.

Journals contains a wealth of new material, all of which was sealed by Hughes until February 2013.  The journals have been split into separate sections, each of which spans a different period in the poet’s life.  Photocopies of her journal pages have been included at the start of every one.  These show the progression of her writing, and are really a lovely touch to add to the wonderful whole.  Two sections of glossy photographs can also be found within the book’s pages.  As one would expect with such a bulk of work, the notes section and index are both extensive.

The first journal, dating from when Plath was just eighteen years old, opens with a poem by Louis MacNeice, and two quotes written by Yeats and Joyce respectively.  The first entry which Plath writes reads like an echo for much of her life: ‘I may never be happy, but tonight I am content’.

Sylvia Plath and Elizabeth Cantor, Cape Cod, 1952

Throughout her journals, Plath is so warm, full of vivacity, and strikingly original.  In an entry in the first journal, written in August 1950, she writes: ‘I love people.  Everybody.  I love them; I think, as a stamp collector loves his collection.  Every story, every incident, every bit of conversation is raw material for me.  I would like to be everyone, a cripple, a dying man, a whore, and then come back to write about my thoughts, my emotions, as that person.  But I am not omniscient.  I have to live my life, and it is the only one I’ll ever have’.

Each and every entry is filled to the brim with musings, philosophy, emotions, questions and answers.  Plath is so very honest, and incredibly witty too.  When speaking about a dentist removing her wisdom teeth, she says: ‘The doctor pinned the bib around my neck; I was just about prepared for him to stick an apple in my mouth and strew sprigs of parsley on my head’.  Some of the entries reflect upon her day, and others are small self-contained essays about a veritable plethora of subjects.  Amongst other things, she touches upon such topics as literature, love, communal living, politics and the notion of democracy, and then burrows into each one of them in turn, providing the reader with her insights into and musings of each.  Some of the vignettes included are so very charming.  The following occurred whilst Plath was looking after a family of three children over the summer of 1950:

“Your hair smells nice, Pinny.” I said, sniffing her freshly washed blonde locks.  “It smells like soap.”
“Does my eye?” she asked, wriggling her warm, nightgowned body on my arms.
“Does your eye what?”
“Smell nice?”
“But why should your eye smell nice?”
“I got soap in it,” she explained.

Plath’s writing, as anyone who has read even a single one of her poems will know, is absolutely beautiful.  Her descriptions particularly are gorgeous: ‘The two lights over the front steps were haloed with a hazy nimbus of mist, and strange insects fluttered up against the screen, fragile, wing-thin and blinded, dazed, numbed by the brilliance’, and ‘The air flowed about me like thick molasses, and the shadows from the moon and street lamp split like schizophrenic blue phantoms, grotesque and faintly repetitious’.  Throughout, she makes the everyday entrancing, and notices the positive and beautiful qualities in everything which her words touch upon, however much we may take the element in question for granted in the modern world.  The scenes which she builds are so vivid.

The importance of Plath’s art is prevalent immediately: ‘Perhaps someday I’ll crawl back home, beaten, defeated.  But not as long as I can make stories out of my heartbreak, beauty out of sorrow’.  Poems have been included throughout, all of them placed into the volume in the order in which they first appear in her journals.  It goes without saying that each and every one is perfect, startling and exquisitely crafted.  At times, she provides a fascinating commentary upon her own writing, beautifully analysing her own finely wrought sentences.

Plath was such an intelligent woman, and throughout she writes with such clarity, even in the earliest journal entries.  She both praises and chastises herself and humankind – for example, writing ‘I think I am worthwhile just because I have optical nerves and can try to put down what they perceive.  What a fool!’  There are hints of the growth of her coming depression too.  She writes in 1950, for example, that ‘I have much to live for, yet unaccountably I am sick and sad’.  Plath also continually muses on life and death and the vast chasm between the two, as well as the very notion of existence: ‘Edna St. Vincent Millay is dead and she will never push the dirt from her tomb and see the apple-scented rain in slanting silver lines, never’, and ‘I loved [Antoine de Saint-]

Sylvia Plath’s high school graduation photograph

Exupery; I will read him again, and he will talk to me, not being dead, or gone.  Is that life after death – mind living on paper and flesh living in offspring?’

The Journals of Sylvia Plath is a book to be savoured, and is a wonderful companion to the stunning Letters Home, another Faber & Faber must for any fan of the poet.  Both books are sure to delight without a doubt.  In them, Plath provides us with a window into her world, and her journals particularly are written in such a way that it feels as though we as readers are her closest confidantes.  Nothing is hidden from us, and each and every entry drips with verity.  Even the biggest of her fans will learn swathes from reading this beautiful and important book.

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