It’s just over a year since I reviewed the very charming debut novel from Deborah O’Brien – Mr Chen’s Emporium – in which we meet formidable heroine Amy Duncan, a naïve young woman trying to find a place for herself in the very masculine world of gold rush NSW. I was thrilled to receive a copy of O’Brien’s eagerly awaited sequel, The Jade Widow, which takes Amy on another fascinating personal journey, overcoming prejudice and misogyny within a meticulously researched historical framework.
Mr Chen’s Emporium moves back and forth in time from the present day to the mid 1800s in the rural town of Millbrooke. Amy’s forbidden interracial romance with Charles Chen is revealed via historical clues uncovered by a modern day artist, now resident in Amy’s old home. The Jade Widow similarly focuses on the stories of two women, but this time they are contemporaries: the now widowed Amy Chen and her sister-in-law Eliza Miller.
It is 12 years since Amy’s beloved Charles passed away, and she is still very much in mourning. Her son Charlie is the light of her life and she retains close ties to the Millers – her late husband’s foster family – however a dark shadow has been cast over the bubbly, romantic girl we met in the first story. The Jade Widow explores the challenges Amy faces as the mother of a mixed-race child in an intolerant society, as well as her attempts to create a business for herself in a time when women can not take out loans in their own names. Eliza is similarly ambitious for herself, with a burning desire to become a doctor. NSW will accept its first and only female medical student in 1885, and it’s not Eliza. Forced to study overseas, Eliza moves back and forth between Milbrooke and the Sorbonne, facing down considerable criticism and the dismissive, patronising slurs of male medical students as she goes.
Amy’s dream is to build the grandest hotel in country New South Wales. She has the financial backing of her father in law and soon attracts the assistance of creative souls and project managers in a series of chance meetings. One of these is an Irishman, Liam O’Donnell, who comes to Millbrooke as the hotel manager, and provides Amy with her first romantic distraction since Charles’ passing. Eliza, who has always preferred research over romance, is forced to work alongside a new local doctor, Martin Burns, and is similarly tempted by the possibility of commitment. The Jade Widow is a very romantic book, but neither of these subtly drawn love stories ends in a conventional fashion. O’Brien has chosen for these women to stay true to themselves at the same time as they embrace the norms of their age and the conclusion is refreshingly cliché-free.
Like Mr Chen’s Emporium, The Jade Widow piqued my interest because of O’Brien’s thorough research of the time period. The small details of daily life – cooking tools, social attitudes – are cleverly outlined. And, as Amy succeeds in creating her magnificent hotel she begins rubbing shoulders with politicians, artists and other notable figures from Australian history. O’Brien runs a playful ‘what if…’ thread through Amy and Eliza’s stories: what if then NSW Premier Sir Henry Parkes came to stay at Amy’s hotel, for example? The book includes brief bio details for the real historical characters peppered through the narrative.
The Jade Widow succeeds as a sweeping historical love story, but it does so with a sharp eye on the very real hardships faced by Australian women in this era. Eliza is a suffragette and campaigner for equality: Amy agrees with Eliza in principle, but is still a little reticent about making waves. The heroines they look to for guidance are the characters of their favourite books, like Pride and Prejudice and Alice in Wonderland – both of which feature women and girls who are struggling against the contradictory rules of their societies. As Eliza states towards the novel’s end, when she is weighing up the choice of career vs marriage: “The problem is that I never know who I am from one day to the next”. The Jade Widow is an accomplished sequel that neatly rounds out Amy’s story, which was only half-told in the first book. It also reminds us to tip our hats politely to those amazing people who broke the ground for women’s rights in Australia.
The Jade Widow is published by Random House. RRP $32.95. Out now.
I thank the publisher and the author for my lovely signed copy (thank you!) but all opinions are, as always, my own.
This review forms part of my reading list for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013.