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Review: No Small Shame by Christine Bell

on April 22, 2020

No Small Shame 
Christine Bell
Impact Press (Ventura Press)
2020, 400p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

Australia, 1914. The world is erupting in war. Jobs are scarce and immigrants unwelcome. For young Catholic Mary O’Donnell, this is not the new life she imagined.

When one foolish night of passion leads to an unexpected pregnancy and a loveless marriage, Mary’s reluctant husband Liam escapes to the trenches. With her overbearing mother attempting to control her every decision, Mary flees to Melbourne determined to build a life for herself and her child. There, she forms an unlikely friendship with Protestant army reject Tom Robbins.

But as a shattering betrayal is revealed, Mary must make an impossible choice. Does she embrace the path fate has set for her, or follow the one she longs to take?

From the harshness of a pit village in Scotland to the upheaval of wartime Australia, No Small Shame tells the moving story of love and duty, loyalty and betrayal, and confronting the past before you can seek a future.

Books like this make me really, really grateful that I’m living life as a woman in 2020, not 1920.

The story begins in 1913 Scotland and with young Mary, 14. Her Irish Catholic family are poor, her father works in the mines and her mother births babies, some of whom live and some of whom don’t. When the entire family as well as the family of her closest friend Liam move to Australia, it’s supposed to be a new beginning. However, little changes – Liam finds himself down in the mines, one in Wonthaggi this time, something he was desperate to avoid. And Mary and her family live in what is basically a tent, all of them crammed in together in conditions that are harsh in an entirely different way.

The story moves through the war and Mary’s forced marriage to Liam after one night and then Liam’s vanishing to Melbourne with a promise to send for her that never eventuates. Mary doesn’t find much sympathy from her Irish Catholic mother, who treats her like a leper even after Mary is safely married, punishing her it seems, for her sins and the sins of someone else. Mary makes a friend, who also takes advantage of her and finally she leaves for Melbourne, where she finds a room with a friendly married woman, whose husband is away in the war. Pearl is an unwavering support for Mary, a friend and even perhaps mother figure, someone who treats her with respect and consideration, probably even love. And then there’s Tom, a Protestant nephew of Pearl, who cannot ‘sign up’ into the war effort. He and Mary build a friendship that is interrupted by the return of Mary’s husband Liam from the war, broken and damaged in more ways than one.

This book was very slow to start – the first 100p were a bit of a struggle to be honest, but once it got going, it really got going. There are a lot of issues explored here, but mostly they seem to base themselves around the role of women at this time and how difficult it was to be a woman born into a poor or low family. Life is a constant struggle to survive with disease and illness rampant in the sorts of communities that spring up around mines. Babies are born on the regular and die, also with regularity. Mary experiences a lot of loss in her life by the time she’s a young teenager and her childish infatuation with her best friend lowers her guard around him. Although Mary gets the marriage she desires, it doesn’t work out the way she planned and she finds herself alone and pregnant and responsible for their child all on her own. Liam makes Mary’s life a misery, callously before the war and then perhaps not intentionally when he returns.

Despite his treatment of Mary earlier, Liam is a sympathetic character as well, you can dislike him but also feel for him as he’s a product of his own desire for freedom, for something more. And no one knew what they were truly signing up for when they enlisted for WWI – they thought it’d be a lark overseas, an adventure they’d be home from in six months and it lasted over four years – some would say, if you were lucky and got to come home at all. But the Liam that returns home is a shell of the man that left, in a time when PTSD was not named nor even understood, nor was there sympathy to be found in many corners. Liam is volatile, often violent (although not really deliberately, he’s fighting demons and can’t always tell between sleeping and waking). He can’t hold down a job and they live in near poverty with Mary forced to take on a breadwinning role when he cannot. It means she has to leave him in charge of the children and Liam’s mental capacity is such that it’s a ticking time bomb every day.

A lot of the relationships are examined really well here, particularly the difficult relationship between Mary and her mother, the tough ‘Maw’, an unrelenting woman of judgement and religion who honestly for me, is everything that’s wrong with rampant Catholicism. Maw is brutal, with zero empathy and what feels like a desire to punish Mary simply for living. She is relentless in her criticism and her putdowns are sharp and well aimed, determined to bring Mary down. But Mary grows in strength over the course of the book as she emerges from struggles and times of grief. I think she comes to realise that sometimes, there is just no pleasing some people and it would be a waste of her time and effort to continue to try. Mary has a chance for happiness that she must decide whether or not to take, because the cost of it might be her family. The relationship between the two of them frustrated me on behalf of Mary – she tries so hard to please her mother, to connect with her, to have some sort of connection with her but her mother is so unyielding that it’s like she cannot let her guard down for a second and she constantly feels the need to enforce distance between them in her criticism of Mary. I honestly wanted Mary to just…be free of her, stop looking for her approval when it clearly was never going to be given, no matter what Mary did. Take a chance on happiness and leave the negativity behind. Despite all she’d been through, Mary herself wasn’t negative and I felt like she needed to hold onto that.

It did take me a while to get into this but once I did, I felt like it was a very vivid story, rich with history and the struggle of being a young woman trying to find her place in what was a difficult world. Mary is a character easily identified with – young, idyllic, optimistic, hard working and a dreamer, despite having to do her duty and care for her traumatised husband. It’s a story of young love gone awry in the worst of ways and the desperate and unforeseen circumstances of a war that everyone went into blind. And despite it’s often bleak tones, the end felt uplifting, which in these times, satisfied me.


Book #73 of 2020

No Small Shame is book #25 for The Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2020

2 responses to “Review: No Small Shame by Christine Bell

  1. Marg says:

    I was curious to see that this was a debut novel. It sounds interesting to me.

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