Mary is a 16-year-old girl who dreamt of a life in Australia with her best friend Liam. They were going to live the lives that they wanted; follow their dreams, not follow in the footsteps of their parents. Oh, how they were wrong.
Set in 1914 onwards, with The Great War impending, we follow Mary through her treacherous, and in my opinion, completely unfair life. From the blurb, we know Mary is met with an unexpected pregnancy and a loveless marriage out of obligation. Knowing this, I found the first 100 pages to be a little slow. However, as soon as I reached the climax, the story did not stop. With this in mind, upon reflection, I am really glad the first 100 pages eased us into the environment of the story. In these 100 pages, Bell sucks us into the dynamics of family, society, and religion of this time period that, despite the slow pace, I honestly forgot about the oncoming drama at times and was wholly curious as to the overarching importance of these dynamics. Bell writes relationships expertly which really drive the story and the severity of different events. Bell’s characterisation of Mary was so strong and I will forever remember her as a strong feminist protagonist. Mary’s endless determination was a pillar of hope for me as a reader. Representing everything I could have wanted out of a woman in this book. While Mary, in the novel's setting, seems out of place and contradictory, as we read in our 2020 era she acts as a pillar of rationality, questioning society and going against expectations.
We get a refreshing and underexplored take on the great war period. The war inevitably affects the lives of those in No Small Shame, however, for me it took a back seat, which I enjoyed and appreciated. As I’m sure we all remember, or at least any Aussie readers can, our school history classes being saturated with lessons on the war itself, with a brief dash of how those on the home front contributed to the war. So the reason I enjoyed the angle No Small Shame took is that it was a fairly new perspective to me. Honestly, I was quite surprised by the minor role the war played in this novel, but I hardly had time to think about it because I was so sucked into Mary’s tumultuous life.
In No Small Shame, Bell explores feminism through a historical lens which closely analyzes the role of women in that period, stimulating the reader to think about how far we have or haven’t come from those expectations. It is clear that Mary has always been a bit of an outsider, by comparison to those in her family. She has big expectations for life, and she does not want to be restricted by her circumstance. However, despite Mary’s ceaseless fortitude, she is not impenetrable and her actions are strongly motivated by love. I cannot fault this trait on Mary because I think it is something everyone is weak to, no matter how hard they attempt to be immune to it. Ultimately, this is how Mary fell pregnant, embarking her on a new trajectory she could never have anticipated. Mary’s love for Liam, despite how he mistreats and disregards her when she moves to Australia, is stronger than her disdain for his behaviour, because the minute he tells her what he wants to hear, she succumbs to his advances. With this thought, we must also remember she is 16 at the time. Mary has a crush on a boy; so no matter how mean they are to you, the minute they turn around and give you the attention you’ve been craving you’d almost do anything to maintain it.
Through the dynamic between Liam and Mary, Bell explores ideas of sex and responsibility. Mary grew up and lives in a household that is governed by religion. To have sex before marriage is a sin and this is made extremely clear to her. Despite this upbringing, this enforced attitude does not play a role until Mary is faced with the consequence of the event. I am trying not to mince my words here because I want to make it very clear that it isn’t the consequence of MARY’S actions, but the result of a relation between her and Liam. A questionable relation at that. Mary has a crush on Liam, she is 16, as I mentioned. Liam is 19 and an asshole, basically. When they have sex Liam is drunk, whether knowingly or not, he is using their relationship against Mary to weaken her to his advances. It was clear to me that Mary did not want to have sex with Liam. Kiss him, yes, but she repeatedly tells him to stop and that it shouldn’t be happening. The depiction of this scene, and relationship, is an important part of the novel. It shows the burden women must often take on as a result of a man’s irresponsibility and how despite how a woman's role in such situations is forced, it seems as though it is her fault for “getting herself pregnant.”
Despite having to deal with an unwanted pregnancy at 16, the situation escalates due to her mother’s strong religious beliefs. I think it is safe to assume Mary doesn’t believe as strongly, or at all, but she is 16 and lives in her mother’s house, so she has no other option but to be a victim to the shame being impressed upon her by her mother. She is questioned by her family as if the pregnancy was solely her fault, she responds
‘Why, because I’m a girl and he’s a boy with his own urges not to fight and control?’
It isn’t hard to understand that the ultimate responsibility falls solely on Mary, by the simple fact that the child grows in her, which is for the best as Liam is, once again, an asshole. But the conversations about blame can paint a different picture. Is anyone to blame? Is Liam to blame? Is society and its pressure on the whole to blame? Is Mary’s mother and her forceful religious ideology to blame? I think it is a combination of all of the above because Mary is not a disinterested mother, there is nothing to say she didn’t want the baby. But rather the circumstance itself changes the nature of its acceptability. With this, I think it is interesting to consider the title of the book, One Small Shame, who’s shame? Is it Mary’s? Or Liam’s? Or broader societies? Because Mary doesn’t seem very shameful. Furthermore, when she is given the opportunity to live the life she makes for herself, she truly thrives. I think the decision to call the novel One Small Shame is quite noteworthy because it provokes the reader to think about the idea of shame and the role it plays in the novel. For me, the shame exists with the circumstance around Mary, not with what she did. I don’t think Mary would ever have shame in her life or her baby’s existence.
With that, I felt quite proud of the way Mary was written because it is clear that she does love and prioritize herself a lot of the time too. One of my main pet peeves in books about hardship, and yes my cynicism continues to prevail, is that a bad situation never comes good in the name of love or simply because of the feelings one character has for another, e.g. I love him too much so therefore, I myself must suffer. I don’t expect this revolution to come at every stage of the book, however I feel that a sense of justice must be served to oneself and I was glad that Bell allowed the story to take that road. I hope it isn’t too much of a spoiler to say that the ending is satisfying and Mary does get a semblance of peace and happiness in the end. I think it would be hard to read a story of this nature without the hope that it will all end up okay. Despite the historical setting, which I think actually aided in the communication of the following, Bell uses Mary as a pillar of inspiration, as most heroes do. But what sets this story apart from the rest of those heroes is that Mary isn’t a far stretch apart from most women. It is safe to say we have all been in situations we don’t want to be in, or feel forced to act a certain way, to be seen as a certain type of woman, but ultimately we have the freedom and power to choose. Through Mary, Bell highlights the POWER a woman has over her own life, and how if you want to make a change, or choose a different path, no one other than yourself is going to do that for you. Sometimes the decision will be tough, but if you want a certain type of life you must cultivate it yourself, rather we have the power to cultivate it ourselves.
No Small Shame is a beautiful and inspiring story about female power. Despite ongoing hardship, Mary continued to forge her path for the life she wants. Christine Bell gives us a brilliant story of female heroism and shows us that women are capable of much more than we could ever really know.
No Small Shame
381 pages. 2020.
Note: I’d like to thank the wonderful team at Ventura Press, I am continuously proud and in awe of the books they put out, so if you are looking for something new to read I would highly recommend heading to https://www.venturapress.com.au/ to see what they have to offer, and supporting independent Australian publishing. (Not an ad.)