Mr Chen’s Emporium is the debut novel by Australian teacher and visual artist Deborah O’Brien. Moving between the present day and the Gold Rush era in rural New South Wales, O’Brien weaves a comfortingly old-fashioned tale of love, loss and self-discovery.
In 1872, 17 year old Amy Duncan is struggling to spread her wings in the dusty town of Millbrooke. Oppressed by the rules of her strict clergyman father and a passive mother preoccupied with the difficulties of childbirth and childrearing so common for women of the period, Amy escapes into the pages of Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice, wishing for her own chance to be swept off her feet. When the family attends a local barn dance, Amy imagines herself swirling around a ballroom; her notions of love and marriage are naïve and romantic. She has a shock in store when she comes across the handsome Mr Chen and the Aladdin’s cave of treasures stocked in his little shop.
In present day Millbrooke, Angie Wallace, a recently widowed artist, has rented the Old Manse, where Amy used to live. She comes across an antique trunk, filled with European and Chinese bits and bobs, and slowly pieces together the story of the house’s former occupants. Meanwhile, Millbrooke itself is in a state of flux as tension brews between mining interests, a proposal for a new historical tourist attraction and local residents who prefer the quiet life.
This novel taps into the widespread interest in genealogy and local history popularised in recent years by programs such as Who Do You Think You Are? As a former museum curator myself, I relished the way O’Brien approached the topic of research in this novel: the difficulties of tracing people from a period where records were incomplete, for example, and the challenges involved in maintaining a local museum in the face of restrictive funding. Millbrooke is a fictional place, but the author has used her research cleverly to recreate a very typical Gold Rush town, with all the characteristics and situations common to the time.
One of the defining issues of the Gold Rush period was the relationship between the Anglo-Irish population and the large community of Chinese migrants who came to work the goldfields. This is one of the earliest examples of Australia’s struggle with ‘multiculturalism’, and in this time of intolerance and fear of anyone visibly ‘different’ there were many examples of racist attacks against the Chinese. To fall in love with a Chinese man would mean choosing life as a social outcast. Amy must decide how willing she is to make this choice.
In the present day, Angie has no interest in romance, having lost the true love of her life. But with her adult children getting on with their lives, and her head filled with the details of this other historical love story, Angie too surprises herself by finding a companion in the most unlikely of circumstances.
Mr Chen’s Emporium is the story of two brave and resilient women, who are willing to stand up for their beliefs and who manage to recreate themselves and their lives in the wake of tragedy. If you are familiar with the stories of Austen or the Brontes – or indeed Downton Abbey! – you will recognise the brooding, misunderstood heroes, as well as the sweet-talking cads, who make up this novel’s love interests. The strong women, quick-witted and independent except when it comes to love, will also resonate for fans of a good period drama. Importantly, all this romance is presented alongside some key moments in Australian history, demonstrating the struggles with migration and gender roles that continue, in varying ways, in the present day.
Mr Chen’s Emporium is published by Random House, and I thank them kindly for my copy.
This review will also be listed as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012.