by Christine Bell
Whenever I consume a book in a few days I always feel obliged to spend a moment or two pondering the years the author has spent writing the publication. It’s the same as polishing off a delicious meal in thirty minutes and thanking the cook who might have spent many hours preparing it.
Thank you, Christine Bell, for delving deeply into the structure of life and living one hundred years ago, first in Scotland and later in Wonthaggi. The story of Mary’s early life in a pit village in Scotland sets up two pivotal relationships: her harsh judgemental mother and Liam, a close childhood friend. Mary and Liam share their dreams of finding lives very different from their parents. It’s a dream that still propels many of us even in 2020.
Understanding why the lives of people drawn from the same background can develop so differently is a fascinating topic. Liam’s mother is the antithesis of Mary’s. Liam’s expectations of life in exciting Australia are high but he is without the determination and self-esteem to stay his course. He tries, but doesn’t have the conviction to drive it through, and the war robs him of what little strength he has.
Mary, constantly battered emotionally by her mother’s obsession with religion, has a will that shines through, despite her mistakes, misjudgements, and the fears she holds for her own dreams.
Bell is brief with the general details of WW1, which highlights the geographical distance of Australia from the action, but the details she does include are firmly rooted in the development of the story and are harrowing. The war might have been taking place a long way from Australia, but the sudden appearance of that critical telegram delivers it right into living rooms with shattering emotion.
My favourite scene is a small moment in Mary’s life, a tiny cameo that promises something huge, especially for her children: a tea and scone café, a bowl of cream, and a metaphorical door opening.