The beautiful cover aside, and I did buy it purely because of that cover, this is such a good read. Based, initially at least, on a real story from 1955, in which a woman comes forward to claim a virgin birth, Chambers has given us a compelling and warm-hearted story that is both a mystery and an account of loneliness. Whilst Gretchen Tilbury’s claim begins the narrative, it is Jean Swinney, Features Editor at the fictional North Kent Echo, whose story we follow.
Jean lives a quiet life with her reclusive mother, finding small pleasures in the times she can escape the routine and restrictions of her life.
‘Of the various liberties available, her favourite was to unfasten her girdle and lie at full stretch on the couch with an ashtray on her stomach and smoke two cigarettes back to back.’
As the adult daughter left at home, Jean’s relationship with her aging and fractiously dependent mother is laid out in all its claustrophobic complexity, and this element is handled so brilliantly.
When the beautiful Gretchen contacts the Echo to disclose her virgin birth, it is left to Jean as the only woman on the team to investigate. Jean is drawn to Gretchen and to the life she has with her child and her unassuming husband, Harold. Jean takes a growing interest in the family, and the mutual friendship develops, extending to days out and to Jean becoming an official aunt to the Tilbury’s daughter, Margaret. This brings a new freedom to Jean’s rather trammelled existence and Chambers does the poignancy of these glimmers of hope beautifully. The period detail is superbly done, and so the world of Jean, Gretchen and Harold is so easy to imagine.
What follows is a story of secrets, heroically-concealed emotions and restraint. Jean is a marvellous character and the ending stays with you long after the story’s done. This is a novel to savour.