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No Small Shame by Christine Bell

This historical fiction by Christine Bell is a bleak and often harrowing read that nonetheless, tugs the heart strings and tells an unputdownable story of familial bonds, religion, war, love, sacrifice, courage, and heartache, all against the backdrop of Scotland and Australia during and in pre and post-war times.

Young Catholic, Mary O’Donnell, follows her family to Australia in the hope of a better life, one that offers more than their little mining village in Scotland ever could. Landing in Australia and moving to the small Victorian township of Wonthaggi, Mary’s dreams for herself and those she loves are soon shattered.

Following a series of terrible decisions and exiled from her family, Mary flees to Melbourne to start what she hopes will be a better life. There, she finally finds what’s she’s been looking for – purpose, friendship, and burgeoning love.

But when her past comes back to not just haunt her, but alter everything she thought to be true, Mary is faced with a terrible choice: ignore duty and what her faith and family tell her she must do, or follow her heart?

This is an utterly gripping book that I found so hard to put down. Swept up in Mary’s story, I read until 4.30 in the morning because I simply had to know what happened. The story told isn’t a “nice” one, after all, it’s about the impact of poverty, war, and racial and religious discrimination on individuals, families, and culture. The way Scottish and Australian history is represented in the novel is so well done – it doesn’t dominate, but serves the story as it always should in this type of fiction, allowing it to colour and, to a degree, drive the narrative forward, but never, ever overshadow it. The characters are so very rounded and real, even the minor ones. But it’s Mary that we root for and love, whose compassion and desire to break free of the shackles that she sees and feels holding herself and others back, that make you ache for her. Her – and even the less sympathetic characters who are also bound by social and other ties and cannot see their way free.

Be prepared to be transported into the past, to be caught up in a slice of Aussie history but, mostly, swept away in a completely relatable and beautifully told tale that will move and, in the end, fill you. Outstanding.

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