, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Review: No Small Shame, by Christine Bell
Impact, 2020. 396 pp. AU $33

When fifteen-year-old Mary O’Donnell emigrates from Scotland to Australia in 1914, besides the promise of a more prosperous life, she’s hoping to taste a thin wedge of freedom, like a good pie — and to be reunited with her childhood crush, Liam Merrilees. But there’s precious little money waiting in this sparse landscape for Mary or her family, Further, Liam has lost the fire in his eyes, though not his self-involvement. When he’s not being outright brutal toward Mary, he shows absolutely no interest in her, but she’s the only one who can’t see it. She’s used to being kicked. Mary’s mother has bruised her all her life, and not just emotionally; daughter accepts this as her lot.

From this premise, you can predict where the narrative will go most of the time. You know that Mary won’t give up on Liam, that mother will never stop ripping into her, and that vile prophecies will bear fruit, evoking more than one trope. Yet the novel works, more or less, because Mary struggles to slip between the Catholic hellfire her mother has taught her to fear and the life she’s dreamed of leading. Her awakening from masochism won’t happen overnight, nor will the world spin any differently for it, but Mary’s interior journey is far less ordained than her exterior one.

The background fits too. First World War Australia, though distant from both Gallipoli and the Western Front, where its volunteers have gone, has its own battlegrounds, starting with that word volunteer. The country has no conscription, but the number of white feathers handed out to able-bodied men not in uniform, based on the grotesque assumption that real men never shirk a fight, takes a heavy emotional toll, on Liam as on others. The lengthy casualty lists don’t seem to make a dent, either; if some men have been slaughtered, it’s up to the rest to avenge them, even if nobody really knows concretely what the war’s about. Throw in wartime price inflation, the wages that haven’t kept pace, and strife between Catholic and Protestant, you’ve got quite a vortex of problems. Incidentally, Mary’s mother relishes the religious conflict, in her perverse way. She’s a piece of work.

I like this aspect of No Small Shame, the everyday burdens that twist life in ways that no one could have imagined when the trumpets sounded. Not least are the burdens that women bear, silently and without question, for it’s their job to make sure their men are happy and feel supported, no matter what sacrifice that entails. And you guessed it: Mary takes the brunt, though she’s not alone.

Bell’s prose is simple yet effective, as with Mary’s first glimpse of her new home:

Where were the fabulous fields and plump livestock waiting for lads and farmers promised by the immigration agent in Motherwell offering assisted passages to sunny Australia? All Mary could see extending beyond the train windows was blade after blade of grass bleached colourless as sand in a desert. The poor animals in the endless paddocks were without a leaf of shade or drip of water. She couldn’t guess how any of them survived.

Less convincing, I find, are the characterizations. Maw, her mother, is well drawn. As for Mary, it’s not easy to portray a slow transformation to selfhood, and Bell succeeds, mostly, barring shaky instances that don’t quite make sense to me. Liam, though predictable, has edges. He’s never learned to move past self-pity or reckon with who he is, and though he wants to do better, he can’t. Unfortunately, the reader knows what Mary doesn’t, that he’ll never change. I wish Bell hadn’t tried to redeem him, which I don’t believe, and which I think actually demeans his stature, renders him less tragic.

The children in these pages are idealized, not like any I’ve ever met. Ditto Tom, a Protestant friend of Mary’s who holds a candle for her, which she’s remarkably slow to recognize. He’s a nice guy and treats her kindly, but he’s cardboard, and since he’s crucial to the story, his opacity hurts the narrative. As a man with a medical condition that prevents him from enlisting, he embodies the shame men feel, just as Mary represents women that way. That’s not enough.

Nevertheless, despite these objections, I should point out how unusual No Small Shame is among First World War novels with a female protagonist, a narrow field to begin with. Mary’s neither nurse nor bandage roller nor factory worker nor her country’s soul, keeping the home fires burning. I like that. For that reason, you may find this novel worth reading.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the author through my work for Historical Novels Review, in which this post appeared in shorter, different form.