REVIEW: Small Blessings by Emily Brewin

In brief: Rosie is trying her best to raise her son but things are difficult. Isobel thought she had everything she wanted, but her mother’s illness brings up painful memories. Will the pair be good for each other or make things worse?

The good: Both a page-turner and a sensitive look at how our past can shape us – or cause is to rebel.

The not-so-good: Read it in a day!

Why I chose it: I still can’t forget Hello, Goodbye! Thanks to Allen & Unwin for the copy.

Year: 2019

Pages: 244

Publisher: Allen & Unwin

Setting: Melbourne, Australia

Rating: 9 out of 10

To say I was eagerly awaiting the release of Small Blessings is an understatement. Emily Brewin’s debut Hello, Goodbye still gives me good book feelings years later and after reading Small Blessings, I think it will have the same effect. This is a quietly powerful, more serious book but it packs no less of an emotional punch.

The story is told in alternate chapters from the point of view of Rosie and Isobel, who couldn’t be more different. Rosie is a single mum, struggling to finish Year 12, work and look after her autistic son Petey. Rosie’s also scared that her ex (and father of Petey) is going to hunt her down. Isobel is a lawyer at the top of her game with a lovely husband, house and all the trappings of wealth. But now her mum is dying and she wants a baby. Both Isobel and Rosie are scared. As their past is brought up to revisit them, they need to confront it instead of running away. For Rosie, this is complex. It involves a past that she has left behind but that may have had lasting effects on her beloved Petey. It goes back to her fractured relationship with her mother, one that is tenuous at best now. Isobel’s past also is influenced by her mother – what she was, but more importantly to teenage Isobel’s eyes, what she wasn’t. Isobel’s teenage years were coloured by the expectations of those she went to school with, and now she feels even more guilty for distancing herself from her working-class roots.

Small Blessings isn’t a huge book, but there is a lot to unpack beyond the words. Neither Rosie nor Isobel are particularly likeable characters but you can’t help but feel their pain, shame and embarrassment. They are relatable – who hasn’t felt shame at something they said or did? Or didn’t do? Both are running from a past that is shameful in their eyes but now the past is looming. Rosie is particularly ashamed of her poverty and that others find her worthless, even though she’s dug herself out of a huge hole. Isobel is guilty of this, using words to wound Rosie exactly where it hurts. Isobel is also very good at wounding herself, examining past decisions and finding herself at fault.

The supporting characters in the novel range from sweet (Petey and Rosie’s neighbour Mr Granthall) to downright obnoxious (Rosie’s mother Vera and Isobel’s brother Lachie). Some are very selfish, others attempting to do their best in their own way. The cast of characters is just what you’d expect to see throughout society, making the novel very realistic. The fact that Rosie and Isobel’s problems are internal also demonstrates that you can’t judge a person’s suffering by how they look or dress. As Isobel tells Rosie, she’s lucky even though Rosie thinks she’s sorely mistaken.

Small Blessings would be an excellent read for book clubs as there’s a lot to discuss from motherhood to the effect of teenage years on the adult. It’s an authentic representation of the struggles of moving past the past and accepting yourself as you are. I devoured this book but Rosie and Isobel will stay with me for much longer.

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