IN the words of advice so often given, it was time to “get out more”; extend my horizons.
Not physically, but in more mentally stimulating terms.
Specifically, to broaden the reading experience, to redress the balance of genres ingested in my reading time.
A glance at my bookshelves provided ample proof; without going into great detail, they are excessively weighted in favour of crime fiction. And I underplay the situation by saying “excessively”; more like, “over the top”.
It was not always thus. In more settled times and with ample house room available, the “library” was much bigger, more expansive, more eclectic. In the beginning, there was space aplenty to build bookshelves in the family home.
Seduced by the diverse offerings in a bookshop’s monthly newsletter, I soon gathered an agglomeration of fact and fiction – biographies and diaries, tales of mystery and adventure, classics and pulp, art books and music compendiums. Not all of them wise buys but a continually changing panoramic view into the written word in all its richness and variety.
My world, my comfort, my stimulus. A literary cocoon.
Circumstances change. So do partners and habitats. Possessions get hived off. Personal space gradually shrinks as does that available for bookshelves and their contents.
Numerous moves, sometimes only a few streets away, at others from city to city, state to state, even country to country, inflicted a series of “clearances”. All suffered in pain and regret.
What once truly merited the title of library has been whittled down to some books on a few shelves, artisan crafted to fit the available space and, with clever carpentry, room for more later.
They are already close to full with recent purchases that are a constant and sad reminder of the minor treasures they replace.
Lost and mourned forever are random discoveries such as The Diaries of ‘Chips’ Channon, the manipulative charmer at the heart of pre-war British politics (and recently returned to the limelight), or the magical words of traveller Lesley Blanch in her Journey Into the Mind’s Eye.
Such very disparate characters. But both also supreme spellbinders with their tellings of the worlds they inhabited.
And much the same accolade can be applied to one of the first of my horizon broadening purchases, Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers. Although her world is fictional, it entices and delights every bit as much as those immersed in Westminster (Channon) or remotest Russia (Blanch).
This is suburban London of the 1950s. A grey, dull, damp domain before Britain cast off its postwar gloom and embraced the Swinging Sixties.
Chambers minutely recreates every detail of daily life; the restrictions, the DIY fashions, the tasteless food, the unheated homes, the workplace hierarchy, the fug of smokers indoors and out, the scrimping, the make do and mend, the home-made preserves and bottling, of necessity rather than a lockdown trend.
It’s all there as a vividly precise backdrop to the “small pleasures” that bring joy and solace to local paper journalist Jean Swinney as she slowly discovers the romance she thought would never come her way.
As she dutifully produces a gardening page, household hints and an agony column – the expected lot of the lone female in an otherwise all-male newsroom – Jean’s attention is caught by a brief letter in which a reader claims to have undergone a virgin birth.
A hoax, a fanciful wish or the scoop to end all scoops?
Jean’s father figure of an editor agrees she should at least check on the woman’s story. If false, as expected, it will be spiked with no one any the wiser; if it has legs, it will be the making of Jean and the paper.
Gradually, patiently, Jean delves back into the past of the claimant, Gretchen Tilbury. A slow and dogged task squeezed in between her role as “features editor, columnist and dogsbody”.
She visits the Catholic nursing home where the sick and then unmarried Gretchen gave birth to daughter Margaret. She tracks down other patients and the nursing staff, and has an unsettling meeting with Howard, the man who later became Gretchen’s gentle and protective husband.
Bit by bit the jigsaw takes shape. Jean reports to her tolerant editor that “I haven’t found any reason to disbelieve her” and arranges for a team of intrigued medical experts to undertake skin and blood tests to which Gretchen willingly agrees.
Slowly a picture emerges, focussed on verifying the virgin birth but broadening out to embrace the daily lives of Jean, Gretchen and Howard – a nascent love triangle – and their immediate families.
The probing into Gretchen’s earlier years brings shocks and surprises. This demure, caring and dutiful suburban wife is not all that she at first appeared.
Yet despite all the secrets and deviations Gretchen has been hiding, nothing that Jean unearths disproves the claim that pathogenesis has occurred. Further blood and taste tests on mother and daughter even encourage continued support for the possibility.
Slowly, gently and with the reader almost fully unaware, the plot, as they say, thickens. Like a rich ragout reducing from its initial free-flowing, almost drinkable, stage into its final glutinous unctuous cohesion. Its many ingredients inextricably enmeshed.
It is relentless in its forward momentum. Compulsive reading. Far more so than in many an action or crime fiction tale.
To reveal more would take us into spoiler alert! territory. And this is far too good to mar anyone’s experience of what is sheer delight.
The intrigues, romance, simmering bitterness, subtle phrasing and sharp dashes of sly humour come parcelled within a tightly woven and original evocation of a Britain of not all that long ago.
And there is an almost brutal punch to the solar plexus in the final nine telling words. Kapow!
My horizons have been more than happily extended.
** Pleased to report online searching today unearthed a second hand copy of the Lesley Branch tome so foolishly disposed of many years ago. Joy!