No Small Shame was a moving Australian historical and from an author I hadn’t heard of before, so also a delightful surprise. I love discovering new authors, and Christine Bell is one I’ve now added to my ‘must read’ list.
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.
This is Christine Bell’s debut novel but she is by no means a novice writer. She has 35 short fiction titles published for children, is a Varuna fellow, holds a Master of Creative Writing, and in October 2019 she was awarded the inaugural HNSA Colleen McCullough Residency for an Established Author. She has been honing her craft for years and it shows. No Small Shame is a masterful debut novel, a riveting family saga and an excellent addition to Australia’s historical fiction genre.
Mary O’Donnell is an exceptionally interesting and layered character, familiar to many of us who have Scottish or Irish roots. She dreams of a better life, but religion, circumstances and the time period make that seem impossible. However, she’s strong and compelling and you keep turning those pages, wanting her to rise, as she leaves the small Scottish mining town of her birth behind for Australia.
Meticulously researched, Christine clearly knows this era well and brings it to vivid, gritty life. Her writing is wonderful, wise and empathetic, as she deals with themes of religion, war, PTSD, sexual abuse, and female agency. Chapters are titled with headers such as Declaration of War, Down and Destitute and Final Straw. The chapters are also quite short, which really drives this story forward, and makes it difficult to put the book down – I kept telling myself ‘one more chapter’ right to the very end, not just because the chapters were short, but because No Small Shame is impossible to put down. Highly recommended. I can’t wait to see what Christine Bell delivers next.