A Couple of Corkers: Lisa Jewell and Clare Chambers

Two books rocked my world this last week. The first, The Night She Disappeared by Lisa Jewell, an author I first discovered in 1998 and have adored ever since, and the second is a new author to me, anyway, (I’m always late to the party), Clare Chambers’ novel Small Pleasures.

I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed these books. I knew I’d love the Lisa Jewell one, I have written before of my embarrassing reader crush I have on this author and her latest didn’t disappoint. But the second I would never have chosen if it wasn’t for the hundreds of times I had seen it praised to the skies in my Facebook book groups.

I received my copy of Lisa Jewell’s book the day it was published. I’d pre-ordered it months before and couldn’t wait to get stuck in. The trouble is I can’t write my own book and read Lisa Jewell. I don’t know why. I think it’s probably because I think she is such a clever writer I start burning up with envy and it knocks my confidence and then my book seems really bad in comparison. Yes, I know, I shouldn’t compare, no good can come of it etc, but I can’t help it.

So I put my lovely new hardback on the shelf and tried to get on with my new novel. I was off to Venice for a 20th anniversary weekend with Rob so I thought I’d save it until then. Unfortunately, disaster struck when I realised that due to the stupid new Easy Jet regulations, there was no way this sumptuous new hardback could fit into my tiny hand luggage bag, so I had to buy it again on Kindle. This must be the fifth time I’ve done this. I don’t mind, though. Lisa Jewell deserves every penny.

The Night She Disappeared

This is a very clever and completely absorbing book. Jewell draws three narrative strings together set over two years. It opens with Kim, mother to Tallulah, and grandmother to Noah. She is babysitting Noah while her daughter – who is 19 – goes out to have some fun with her boyfriend Zach. The first chapters follow Kim as she becomes increasingly concerned that she can’t get hold of her daughter. Days pass and there is no sign of them. Kim knows something must have happened as Tallulah would never leave her baby son.

The second narrative is set a year later. Sophie is moving in with her older boyfriend to a posh crammer school near Kim’s village. She writes detective fiction and learns of the story of the missing teenagers. She is intrigued and begins to investigate when something happens at the end of chapter two that will have you immediately hooked.

The third narrative features Tallulah in the months leading up to her disappearance. It is perfectly placed as clues start linking together and different interpretations of events are unfolded and presented to you without comment or guidance. You have to stay alert to pick up the clues.

So why did I love this one so much? Well, the plot is brilliantly crafted so I have that sense of reading an author who is at the top of their game and writes with absolute authority and has such confidence you know you can trust the craftsmanship. Lisa Jewell told me she doesn’t plan her novels, she never knows where it’s going to end up, and I take my hat off to her because I don’t know how she can do this without detailed planning. She must have a mind like a trap.

But, as I have said before, it’s all about the characters. Jewell is the rare writer who can construct pacy, gripping plots but is also able to present characters you care about. They are vividly drawn in a few strokes and it’s her sparse style I like the most. Not a word is wasted – the mark of an experienced and accomplished writer. I must also add that there is a brilliant bit involving a secret (don’t want to give anything away) which, when I got to it, made me as excited as I was the first time I read a Famous Five novel when I was seven.

This is what reading is all about. When I was reading it I could have been anywhere – Dr’s surgery, tropical island, ASDA – it would all disappear as I was so completely caught up in Jewell’s world. I forgot I was reading as the events unfurled and I could picture every tree, every brick of what was described. I feel if I could find the right address I could go and see Kim and Sophie and Tallulah and they would greet me like an old friend, I know them so well. They are flawed, infuriating, charming, and passionate but, like all Lisa Jewell’s characters, they are human and real and that’s why you care about them.

I don’t want to give any of the plot away as it would really spoil it, but I promise you that by the time you get to the final third of the book you will be racing to the end, heart-thumping, mouth dry. My husband had to wait twenty minutes (while we were on the trip of a lifetime to Venice for goodness’ sake!) for me to get to the end as I simply could not put the book down. My fatal mistake was to start reading the last few chapters while he was having his morning shower and then of course I couldn’t stop reading and had to get to the end to find out what happened. Jewell keeps you guessing until the final paragraph. Bravo, Lisa Jewell.

Small Pleasures

This book couldn’t be more different to The Night She Disappeared, but both have that depth of character that means you find yourself thinking about the people long after you have closed the book. I loved this heart-warming, gentle tale of love and life. I have never read Clare Chambers before and now I can’t wait to order her entire catalogue.

Of course, it is beautifully written, lyrical in fact. Jean is a journalist at the end of the 1950’s. Getting older now, it is hinted she has been disappointed in love and now lives with her mother, who demands a great deal from her daughter. Jean becomes obsessed by a newspaper article about parthenogenesis, virgin births, and when a woman called Gretchen writes in to claim her daughter is the product of a virgin birth, Jean pleads with her editor to be allowed to investigate the story.

We follow Jean in her quiet little life as she moves between work and home, catching her excitement as she learns more about Gretchen and her mild-mannered jeweller of a husband, Howard. Secrets and stories and betrayals are gradually revealed, all set against a vividly described England of the 50’s. I was reminded painfully clearly of my grandparents’ house where nothing had changed for forty years. The food, the streets, the details of dressmaking – something that was so much a part of post-war life where many clothes were handmade – is portrayed with great skill and conviction.

It is so hard to talk about this book without spoiling the story. But I could tell you that Jean falls in love and find happiness, and the truth of Gretchen’s letter is much more surprising than you would expect. It’s a story of church knitters, gardening, and old women who visit the lonely. There is great kindness to be found here and it was like a balm to my troubled soul.

SPOILER ALERT PLEASE DON’T READ UNTIL YOU’VE FINISHED THE BOOK – DON’T! YOU WILL REGRET IT

I have to talk about the ending. I won’t tell you what happened but it left me heartbroken. Like, properly heartbroken, in fact, I was quite cross with Clare Chambers for letting it happen. (In the same way I was VERY cross with what Rachel Joyce did to Enid Pretty in Miss Benson’s Beetle (another wonderful book that you must read)).

I like happy endings. I was so upset by this one part of me wondered if I wish I’d never read the damn book as I was sad for days. Honestly! Pathetic I know, but it really got to me. It reminded me of reading another of Lisa Jewell’s – Then She Was Gone – OMG I kind of wish I’d never read that one – it filled me with anguish. But no, on balance, I’m glad I did read Small Pleasures. It’s such a lovely lovely book. I can’t wait to read everything else Clare Chambers has written.

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