No Small Shame

Written by Christine Bell
Review by Larry Zuckerman

When fifteen-year-old Mary O’Donnell emigrates from Scotland to Australia in 1914, 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 Liam has lost the fire in his eyes, though not his self-involvement, and he’s a brute. Mary’s mother has flattened her all her life, and her daughter accepts this as her lot. The resulting narrative is largely predictable.

Yet the novel works, more or less, because Mary struggles to slip between the Catholic hellfire she’s learned 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 predictable than her exterior one. As background, First World War Australia suffers high prices, poor wages, bloodletting overseas, and strife between Catholic and Protestant, which Mary’s mother relishes. She’s a piece of work.

Mary’s well drawn, if uneven, for her slow transformation to selfhood follows a shaky arc. Liam, though predictable, has enough edges for two, and he wants to do better but can’t. He’s never learned to move past self-pity or reckon with who he is, and it’s sad. (Too bad Bell tries to redeem him, which I don’t believe.) 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 but cardboard.

Nevertheless, No Small Shame is unusual among First World War novels with a female protagonist. Mary’s neither nurse nor bandage roller nor factory worker nor her country’s soul, keeping the home fires burning. I like that. Despite its flaws, I think this novel is worth reading.