With so much attention given to debut novelists, it’s easy to forget the joy of a backlist. Clare Chambers, whose novel Small Pleasures was a word of mouth hit in 2020 before making the Woman’s Prize longlist, had feared that she would never publish again. Her own backlist had been warmly received but hadn’t given her a breakout success. Small Pleasures, her first novel in a decade and inspired by a news story she had heard on Radio 4 in the early 2000s, placed her firmly in the limelight and brought an army of fans asking for more – which, happily, has led to beautiful new reissues for her previous novels which are being published from now through the autumn like the rather wonderful bookish equivalent of summer fruits.
What makes a Chambers novel? Characters that leap off the page, dry humour, intelligence, the odd last-act twist, and the feeling of being led by the hand by an author who knows exactly what they’re doing. Chambers excels in small stories with big impact, in the way of Jane Austen, Barbara Pym or D.E. Stevenson; everyday concerns writ large.
Her observational skills were honed at Oxford, where she picked up material for her first novel, Uncertain Terms. After graduating, she spent a year in New Zealand with her husband, Peter. On returning to England, Chambers worked at the publishers Andre Deutsch alongside Diana Athill. Both writers chronicled their days at that firm, with Chambers bringing much of it to life in 2007’s The Editor’s Wife.
Chambers published eight novels over 20 years but, as she told the Evening Standard, “They never really hit the big time at all. Or even the medium-sized time”. She spent five years working on Small Pleasures, worried that she was wasting her time, until the book went to a three-way auction, and subsequently found huge acclaim through the double whammy of word of mouth and critical acclaim.
“Overnight success” is a misnomer that is often attached to experienced novelists who have a breakout hit. JoJo Moyes has spoken drily about this phenomenon – her ninth novel Me Before You took over the bestseller charts in 2012, and as readers have discovered her backlist, so has Hollywood. With similar acclaim coming Chambers’ way, it’s a delightful result all round, both for her and the lucky reader who has plenty to catch up on, some suggestions of which follow here.
Small Pleasures (2020)
Chambers moves further back in time for this novel which roused readers and critics in 2020 with its compassionate portrayal of isolated people who were the victim of the times they lived in, with Jean’s list of small pleasures becoming as much of a favourite passage as the Cool Girl monologue in Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. In the 1950s, reporter Jean Swinney is nearly 40, single, and feeling distinctly unfulfilled thanks in part to her newspaper’s habit of making her write about salad and “women’s issues”. When her editor sends her to interview a mother who claims that her 10-year-old daughter was the product of a virgin birth, Jean becomes close to the family, including husband Howard, and unravels a mystery that reveals far more about each of them, and Jean, than she imagined.