Bell, Christine. No Small Shame. Impact Press, 2020. RRP: 32.99, 400pp, ISBN: 9781920727901.
Melbourne-based author Christine Bell is well established in the children’s literature arena with thirty-five titles to her credit. In No Small Shame, Bell makes her first foray into adult fiction, weaving a tense, often frustrating, story of struggle and resilience into the richly detailed historical setting of early 20th century urban Australia.
The story traces the tortuous journey to self-fulfilment of Mary O’Donnell, whom we first meet in 1909 as an eleven-year-old in the coal-mining village of Bothwellhaugh in Scotland. Mary is the eldest child of a devout Catholic family. She’s lively, clever and impetuous. Nevertheless, she is pitiably constrained by familial duty, and by fifteen has been forced to give up her dream of becoming a teacher in order to help care for her younger siblings. Her childhood friend and confidante Liam Merrilees dreams of escaping his pit-mining heritage. When, in 1914, their families emigrate to the new state coal mine in Wonthaggi, 85 miles south of Melbourne, Liam has high hopes. But the doors to a new life are as closed to Liam in Australia as they were in Bothwellhaugh, and he sinks into a mire of self-destruction.
The book’s front cover tells us that ‘One wrong choice will change [Mary’s] life forever.’ Unsurprisingly, especially given a bed as the dominant cover image, this ‘wrong’ choice—wrong, or at least unwise, by the standards and social structures of the day—involves 17-year-old Mary sleeping with Liam one afternoon and conceiving a child. This happens over one hundred pages into the novel, and its foretelling may for some readers diminish Bell’s careful construction of the conditions surrounding Mary’s ill-fated actions.
Constrained by her times but impelled by her determination to flourish independently, Mary reels from challenge to challenge, narrowly surviving one to be thrown into another. Wartime changes the landscape. Liam disappears, his uncertain fate a shadow looming over her. Even her official marriage to him proves a liability to forging a new life in his absence. Her friendship with the landlady Pearl and her Protestant nephew, the artist and author Tom Robbins, are welcome reprieves for the reader in an otherwise bleak journey.
The novel has an array of compelling characters—from the gentle, to the gothically awful, to the tragic. Mary’s mother—Maw—emerges as the most pressing and ongoing obstruction in Mary’s struggle. Maw is a woman desiccated by hardship and steered by a frightening meld of superstition and cherry-picked Catholicism. When Mary commits her ‘mortal sin’ with Liam, Maw’s response is determined more by protecting family honour and the good opinion of the local priest than by her love for her daughter, undoubted though that may be. ‘A bad wound may heal, but a bad name may kill.’ (123) On the rare occasions Maw shows tenderness, Mary is inclined to throw it back. The two are sadly, frustratingly at odds. Unfortunately for Mary, Maw is the gatekeeper to the family Mary stands to lose if she is to attain self-determination.
Bell’s evocation of setting is an outstanding feature of the novel. Her social and physical landscapes of the years 1909 to 1919 are vivid with sensory and historical colour, deployed in a way that feels reliable. The many small details studded throughout—street layouts, sirens, smells, brand names, produce, prices—attest to exhaustive research.
The mine whistle blew one long and three short blasts each weekday morning at six. [Mary would] lie in her bed as the sun beat on the tent canvas, listening to the cackles of the stumpy birds laughing in the nearby trees, then rush to the wash house in an effort to beat Maw and the line-up of Merrilees banging on the door for her to hurry up.’ (62).
In her acknowledgements, apart from mentioning research sources, Bell thanks her great-grandparents, whose journeys—as migrants from Belfast, Ireland to Bothwellhaugh, Scotland to Wonthaggi in Victoria—were inspirational. One senses that Bell’s care and insight are, to a large extent, in their honour.
Given that characters’ predicaments arise fundamentally from the sociological framework of the 1910s, the novel gains thought-provoking depth from the fact that Bell, it appears from her Author Notes, has taken very few liberties with historical accuracy. The miseries suffered in that era (infant mortality, sickness, extreme poverty, war trauma), in the absence of the medical expertise and social support we now enjoy, are one of the novel’s central thrusts. Without this backdrop, the novel could at times be in danger of drifting too far—for adult readers—into teen romance terrain, particularly in the earlier chapters as young Mary struggles with her deepening attraction to Liam.
Bell has said in interview (Meikle) that she began writing No Small Shame with the idea of exploring the life and choices of a young immigrant coming to Australia in the hope of a better life. While the story for females in the 1910s, through Mary, is at the forefront, Bell’s depiction of the effects of the times on males is equally sensitive—their burdens, their lack of choice and, particularly moving, the impact of World War I on both those who stayed home (the violence and humiliations imposed on men of fighting age and outward suitability) and those who went to war to return ravaged and tormented.
Meikle, Ashleigh “Isolation Publicity with Christine Bell”. The Book Muse. June 29, 2020. Accessed from https://ashleighmeikle.com.au/2020/06/29/isolation-publicity-with-christine-bell
Jen Banyard is the author of four novels for young readers (published by Fremantle Press) and numerous stories. She has a PhD in creative writing from the University of Western Australia.