No Small Shame tells the story of Mary O’Donnell, a Scottish immigrant to Australia around the time of the Great War. Mary has always been infatuated with Liam, a man she has known since childhood. As they grow older, Liam suffers the loss of his mother and becomes disaffected and irresponsible. Neither wish to follow the paths of their parents, nurturing dreams of a different life, free from the constraints of the working-class world they know where women’s only purpose is to raise children and men go underground into the mine.
Mary withstands numerous trials in the story—she is trapped in an unhappy marriage but does her best to ensure the survival of her family. I was immersed in the narrative for a number of reasons: the emotional honesty, the authentic depiction of life during this period in Melbourne and Wonthaggi, the tension of the difficult choices Mary is forced to make. But what really stayed with me was Mary’s indomitable strength—she’s never beaten and does not give up. Her integrity shines throughout. Having a mother who is unsympathetic and judgemental makes her position even more precarious.
No Small Shame is well-written and reveals the sacrifices and challenges women faced in the early part of last century. Their choices were limited, and, in Mary’s case, one mistake has a huge impact on her prospects. The author doesn’t shy away from exploring these consequences. Yet this novel leaves the reader with hope, because of Mary’s determination to make a better life for herself and her children.