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The Book Trail: From Blaming to Small Pleasures

This edition of the Book Trail kicks off with a novel which I very much enjoyed reading last year – Blaming by the wonderful Elizabeth Taylor. As ever, I have used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ feature on Goodreads in order to generate this list.

  1. Blaming by Elizabeth Taylor
    ‘When Amy’s husband dies on holiday in Istanbul, she is supported by the kindly but rather slovenly Martha, a young American novelist who lives in London. Upon their return to England, Amy is ungratefully reluctant to maintain their friendship, but the skeins of their existence seem inextricably linked as grief gives way to resilience and again to tragedy. Reversals of fortune and a compelling cast of characters, including Ernie, ex-sailor turned housekeeper, and Amy’s wonderfully precocious granddaughters, add spice to a novel that delights even as it unveils the most uncomfortable human emotions.’

2. A Celibate Season by Carol Shields and Blanche Howard
‘Carol Shields, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and Blanche Howard, winner of the Canadian Booksellers’ Award, teamed up to write this delightful epistolary novel that probes the inner life of one couple’s rocky marriage. Faced with a job-related ten-month separation, Jocelyn and Charles choose to maintain contact through letters — an economic decision that paves the way for two very different and very entertaining sides of the same story. As the months progress, the couple’s letters grow less frequent and more revealing — and their “season of celibacy” becomes more of a challenge than either Jocelyn or Charles had imagined. Posing important and timely questions about commitment, monogamy, and the pressures of career and money, this insightful novel by two extraordinary writers offers a perceptive and hopeful look at how men and women really communicate.’

3. Atlas of Remote Islands by Judith Schalansky
‘There are still places on earth that are unknown. Visually stunning and uniquely designed, this wondrous book captures fifty islands that are far away in every sense-from the mainland, from people, from airports, and from holiday brochures. Author Judith Schalansky used historic events and scientific reports as a springboard for each island, providing information on its distance from the mainland, whether its inhabited, its features, and the stories that have shaped its lore. With full-color maps and an air of mysterious adventure, Atlas of Remote Island is perfect for the traveler or romantic in all of us.’

4. The Appointment by Katharina Volckmer
‘For readers of Ottessa Moshfegh and Han Kang, a whip-smart debut novel in which a woman on the verge of major change addresses her doctor in a stream of consciousness narrative. In a well-appointed examination in London, a young woman unburdens herself to a certain Dr. Seligman. Though she can barely see above his head, she holds forth about her life and desires, her struggles with her sexuality and identity. Born and raised in Germany, she has been living in London for several years, determined to break free from her family origins and her haunted homeland. But the recent death of her grandfather, and an unexpected inheritance, make it clear that you cannot easily outrun your own shame, whether it be physical, familial, historical, national, or all of the above. Or can you? With Dr. Seligman’s help, our narrator will find out. In a monologue that is both deliciously dark and subversively funny, she takes us on a wide-ranging journey from Hitler-centered sexual fantasies and overbearing mothers to the medicinal properties of squirrel tails and the notion that anatomical changes can serve as historical reparation. The Appointment is an audacious debut novel by an explosive new international literary voice, challenging all of our notions of what is fluid and what is fixed, and the myriad ways we seek to make peace with others and ourselves in the 21st century.’

5. What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez
‘A woman describes a series of encounters she has with various people in the ordinary course of her life: an ex she runs into by chance at a public forum, an Airbnb owner unsure how to interact with her guests, a stranger who seeks help comforting his elderly mother, a friend of her youth now hospitalized with terminal cancer. In each of these people the woman finds a common need: the urge to talk about themselves and to have an audience to their experiences. The narrator orchestrates this chorus of voices for the most part as a passive listener, until one of them makes an extraordinary request, drawing her into an intense and transformative experience of her own. In What Are You Going Through, Nunez brings wisdom, humor, and insight to a novel about human connection and the changing nature of relationships in our times. A surprising story about empathy and the unusual ways one person can help another through hardship, her book offers a moving and provocative portrait of the way we live now.’

6. Monogamy by Sue Miller
‘Graham and Annie have been married for nearly thirty years. A golden couple, their seemingly effortless devotion has long been the envy of their circle of friends and acquaintances. Graham is a bookseller, a big, gregarious man with large appetites—curious, eager to please, a lover of life, and the convivial host of frequent, lively parties at his and Annie’s comfortable house in Cambridge. Annie, more reserved and introspective, is a photographer. She is about to have her first gallery show after a six-year lull and is worried that the best years of her career may be behind her. They have two adult children; Lucas, Graham’s son with his first wife, Frieda, works in New York. Annie and Graham’s daughter, Sarah, lives in San Francisco. Though Frieda is an integral part of this far-flung, loving family, Annie feels confident in the knowledge that she is Graham’s last and greatest love. When Graham suddenly dies—this man whose enormous presence has seemed to dominate their lives together—Annie is lost. What is the point of going on, she wonders, without him? Then, while she is still mourning him intensely, she discovers that Graham had been unfaithful to her; and she spirals into darkness, wondering if she ever truly knew the man who loved her.’

7. Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones
‘Set in a middle-class neighborhood in Atlanta in the 1980s, the novel revolves around James Witherspoon’s two families—the public one and the secret one. When the daughters from each family meet and form a friendship, only one of them knows they are sisters. It is a relationship destined to explode when secrets are revealed and illusions shattered. As Jones explores the backstories of her rich yet flawed characters ”the father, the two mothers, the grandmother, and the uncle ”she also reveals the joy, as well as the destruction, they brought to one another’s lives. At the heart of it all are the two lives at stake, and like the best writers – think Toni Morrison with The Bluest Eye – Jones portrays the fragility of these young girls with raw authenticity as they seek love, demand attention, and try to imagine themselves as women, just not as their mothers.’

8. Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers
‘1957, south-east suburbs of London. Jean Swinney is a feature writer on a local paper, disappointed in love and – on the brink of forty – living a limited existence with her truculent mother: a small life from which there is no likelihood of escape. When a young Swiss woman, Gretchen Tilbury, contacts the paper to claim that her daughter is the result of a virgin birth, it is down to Jean to discover whether she is a miracle or a fraud. But the more Jean investigates, the more her life becomes strangely (and not unpleasantly) intertwined with that of the Tilburys: Gretchen is now a friend, and her quirky and charming daughter Margaret a sort of surrogate child. And Jean doesn’t mean to fall in love with Gretchen’s husband, Howard, but Howard surprises her with his dry wit, his intelligence and his kindness – and when she does fall, she falls hard. But he is married, and to her friend – who is also the subject of the story she is researching for the newspaper, a story that increasingly seems to be causing dark ripples across all their lives. And yet Jean cannot bring herself to discard the chance of finally having a taste of happiness… But there will be a price to pay, and it will be unbearable.’

Have you read any of these books?

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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.