A flatlay of  Clare Chamber books on a blue background

Image: Ryan MacEachern for Penguin

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.

Learning to Swim (1998)

Chambers’ ability to depict life in all its tiny details is on fine form here, in this luscious story that’s part coming-of-age and part mystery. The bones of the plot are familiar enough to be like sinking into a warm bath – a nerdy teenager is welcomed into the bosom of a more interesting family, falls in love with them all, and is then summarily frozen out later on – but in Chambers’ hands, the story of Abigail and the bohemian Radley family is fresh, vivid, and utterly compelling. Learning to Swim won the main Romantic Novel Award in 1999.

The Editor’s Wife (2007)

Utter catnip for fans of novels shedding a light on the comings and goings of the publishing industry, The Editor’s Wife combines a skilful juggling of mid-2000s Yorkshire and literary London 20 years earlier. Much to his family’s dismay, Christopher Flinders drops out of university to write his novel, but his fortunes seem on the up when a glamorous editor and his wife take him under his wing. One epic misjudgement later, and Christopher’s dreams are shattered, and he retreats to Yorkshire to live in mortified solitude. But 20 years on, Christopher has to re-examine his past, and makes a potentially lifechanging discovery. Chambers’ characters are as bright as usual, but Christopher’s brother Gerald is the breakout smash and steals every scene he’s in.

A Dry Spell (2000)

Jane has lost all interest in sex with her husband, Guy, is isolated and friendless after relocating for Guy’s job, and is worried that she actively dislikes her three-year-old daughter. Guy worries that his wife is becoming very strange, and that he is losing what little religious faith he has. Nina is worried that her teenage son, James, has become a drug addict, and is uncertain about his new girlfriend. All three have enough to worry about in the present, but a chaotic figure from Guy and Nina’s undergraduate days in London is about to resurface and shake up their lives even further. Much as its title would suggest, this novel is utterly enchanting and extremely sardonic.

In a Good Light (2004)

Thirtysomething Esther splits her time between work as a children’s book illustrator and waitress with weekly visits to her father, and fortnightly trysts with her married lover. She lives with her brother, Christian, who uses a wheelchair following an incident in their youth – a time which comes back in sharp relief when, while giving a school talk about her books, she recognises the daughter of someone they once knew. Chambers’ book is excellent on the beady-eyed observations of children, as Esther’s memories return to the shambolic, bohemian, and neglectful childhood that she and Christian shared.

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. 

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