This review was first published in issue 33: Historical Fiction
Title: No Small Shame
Author: Christine Bell
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Impact Press
No Small Shame follows Mary O’Donnell from her childhood in Scotland to her adulthood in Australia after emigrating with her family in the early 1900s. Mary sails from her home in Scotland to the East coast of Australia, settling in a small community and starting her life anew.
Mary comes from a strictly Catholic family, and when she falls pregnant out of wedlock her family uses their religion as an excuse to victim-blame and force shame upon her. She is made to marry a man that does not love her and eventually begins to raise her son alone.
Amidst the narrative of Mary’s personal struggles, Bell has also threaded the issues facing Australians on the home front during World War One. The devastation of the Western front and the trail of destruction it leaves amongst small communities is deeply explored within this book, with heart wrenching consequences.
At the crux of this story is the feeling of helplessness; of being stuck in an era where women are forced to maintain gender roles to the point where it is detrimental to their physical and mental wellbeing, and the overcoming of that by Mary and other peripheral characters. We see her go through unimaginable heartache and tragedy, only to slowly find her power and come out the other side harnessing her voice and autonomy. Secondary character Tom Robbins is also representative of this helplessness—his invisible illness keeps him from fighting in the war and this feeling of failure manifests itself in various ways.
Bell has done an excellent job capturing life during WWI in Australia, as well as the female experience during this era. The theme of guilt and voicelessness is prevalent throughout the book from various characters, pulling together a cohesive character study through one similar thread. If you are interested in reading a historical fiction that doesn’t necessarily focus on romance but rather life during the war, I would highly recommend this book.