Friday, September 28, 2012

Mr Chen's Emporium by Deborah O'Brien (review and Q and A)

As soon as I was offered this book to read, I knew that I wanted to do so! It ticks so many boxes for me! I enjoy Gold Rush stories, I love the whole dual timeline story concept (and have read quite a few over the last month or so) and the synopsis sounded interesting so there was a lot to anticipate liking.

Here's the synopsis:

In 1872, seventeen-year-old Amy Duncan arrives in the Gold Rush town of Millbrooke, having spent the coach journey daydreaming about glittering pavilions and gilded steeples. What she finds is a dusty main street lined with ramshackle buildings.

That is until she walks through the doors of Mr Chen's Emporium, a veritable Aladdin's cave, and her life changes forever. Though banned from the store by her dour clergyman father, Amy is entranced by its handsome owner, Charles Chen ...

In present-day Millbrooke, recently widowed artist Angie Wallace has rented the Old Manse where Amy once lived. When her landlord produces an antique trunk containing Amy's intriguingly diverse keepsakes - both Oriental and European - Angie resolves to learn more about this mysterious girl from the past.

And it's not long before the lives of two very different women, born a century apart, become connected in the most poignant and timeless ways.
The book opens with young Amy Duncan travelling from the thriving city of Sydney to the Gold Rush town of Millbrooke. She has been summoned there by her very strict, very narrow-minded father who is the town clergyman. For Amy, this means an end to a life with her aunt who lets her read scandalous novels (one of my favourite aspects of the book), buy pretty dresses and attend charming entertainments. In her new life, she will be expected to work hard by her mother's side looking after her siblings, acting as a type of governess to another young girl in the town and to behave properly at all times.

Life starts as expected but Amy is given a glimpse into a more exotic life when she visits Mr Chen's Emporium. He gives her some tea but like so much of her life, spirited Amy must hide this gift from her father who has a very poor opinion of men like Charles Chen. This is because Charles and his brother are of Chinese origin. Charles is a little different to some of the other Chinese in town because he was in effect adopted by one of the most influential families in town and so he has the benefit of a good English education as well as his Chinese ethnicity.

Amy is at once intrigued by Charles, and when his adoptive family facilitate a meeting between the two it becomes clear that those feelings are well on their way to being reciprocated. But it is the 1870's and whilst interracial relationships would have occurred, they would have been very unusual and would most likely have resulted in a young woman like Amy being shunned by her local community. Even with just this factor, life would have been difficult enough, but this is the goldfields where the antagonism between white miners and their Chinese counterparts is simmering just below boiling point at the best of times. Those tensions rise again in Millbrooke, potentially putting those more moderate people at risk of violence from those who want to see the Chinese forced off the diggings forever.

In the modern day, recent widow Angie Wallace comes to the town of Millbrooke for the weekend and ends up staying. She rents the crumbling Manse from grumpy Richard Scott for a pitiful amount on the proviso that she will start doing some much needed renovations. For Angie, this is the chance for a new beginning away from the everyday memories of her life with her recently deceased husband. Her grown children do not understand her need to do this, and her friends are sceptical too. Angie, however, sees this as a chance to recharge her artistic batteries, and she soon finds herself drawn into the life of the town when she starts teaching art to a group of ladies who live in the town.

Millbrooke is a town that is still under the influence of gold mining and is again potentially going through a new transition period. This time though, it is a big international mining company that has it's sights set on the town. They are promising jobs and good times for the whole town, as long as they can get the necessary approvals that they need to start the process. The face of the mining company in town is American Jack Parker. It isn't long before the smooth talking Jack has taken up residence in the Manse as a boarder.

What links the two stories is a small trunk that Angie finds that contains small artefacts that have her searching the past for evidence of Charles and Amy Chen. While she searches the historical records related to Millbrooke, she finds herself drawn more fully into modern Millbrooke. I especially loved the idea of the art exhibition that she does with her painting class which focussed on the people and past of the town. The author is a visual artist as well as an author and you could really feel her passion for this side of her work shining through the pages in that section.

In terms of the characters, I was much more invested in the historical characters. I would have loved to have seen more about Amy and Charles and their relationship, but I did enjoy the glimpses that we did get to see, especially in later life. I am not sure that modern sensibilities didn't colour the relationship more than would have been possible in reality, but I suspect getting the balance right between those two differing perspectives would be quite difficult. I also really enjoyed Amy's relationship with Charles' adopted sister Eliza, who has very grand and ambitious plans for her life and I suspect that there could be an interesting story to be told about Eliza in future if the author wished to go down that track.

I was less enamoured of the modern characters. I liked the way that Angie's friendships were portrayed, and I loved seeing a 50 something heroine who brings all her experience to the novel. I really enjoyed seeing her search for the clues that she could find about Charles and Amy and the town itself. Where I really struggled was with the choices that she made and in the representation of the two main male characters - Jack and Richard. Richard in particular was a bit of a mystery. Initially he was portrayed as something of a drunkard but later as something completely different.

The dual storyline accent was very structured - much more than you would necessarily see in other similar books. For example, this week I read another book where the first third of the book concentrated on the past, and then moved forward in time with a look back over the shoulder at the past. In this book, in the beginning of each chapter we heard about Amy and her story and then we moved forward in time to see what was happening in Angie's life. I did wonder if the intention was to try and draw direct parallels between the two stories. If so, it didn't quite work for me especially in relation to correlations between Amy's relationship with Charles and Angie's relationship (not going to tell you who with, but I will say I was disappointed with this particular aspect of the story).

Whilst this book didn't work for me in all aspects, I was interested in the story that debut author, Deborah O'Brien, has brought to the page. In the notes, she mentions that she is writing a sequel  and in the Q and A below she says this is a modern setting only which I am not sure about but still.

This book counts for the following challenges

I was thrilled to be given the opportunity to ask the author, Deborah O'Brien, a few questions**:

Q. Let's start with the Emporium which is so important to the story. It sounds like a place that would have been both practical but also filled with exotic treasures. Did you find a place like this in the historical record or did this place come from your imagination?

During the second half of the nineteenth century there were many general stores and emporia run by Chinese merchants in Gold Rush towns, including my own, but Mr Chen’s Emporium is really more a product of my imagination than a real place. As an inveterate shopper, I’ve always loved the notion of an Aladdin’s cave of exotic wares, and that particular metaphor inspired the Aladdin thread, which runs right through the book.

On a figurative level, the emporium represents a storehouse of possibilities for Amy Duncan. Although the exterior, with its corrugated iron awning and Victorian parapet, looks much like any other shop from the 1870s, inside it’s a treasure trove. When Amy walks through the doors, her life changes forever. And it’s not just the wonderful merchandise that she finds intriguing, but the dashing owner himself.

Q. What is it about the goldrush era that still captures our imaginations today?

I like to think of the Gold Rush era as being Australia’s own Wild West period, a time of huge social change. As prospectors flocked to south-eastern Australia from around the globe, ‘tent cities’ sprang up overnight and small rural communities burgeoned into prosperous towns. We’re fortunate that many of them remain relatively intact to this day. If you visit a place like Beechworth, Gulgong or Braidwood, it’s not hard to imagine what it would have been like to live in those turbulent times.

The Gold Rush produced a diverse cast of characters. Among the most notorious were the bushrangers who roamed the countryside, holding up gold escorts. Although I was tempted to feature a gang of bushrangers in my novel, I decided against it. Instead, I gave Amy a bushranger fantasy at the start of the book. As for the diggings, they’re alluded to, but we only see them in a brief scene about two-thirds of the way through. Being a town dweller myself, I’ve explored the impact of the Gold Rush largely from the point of view of the townspeople.

Q. I love books where there is a modern storyline linked to a past storyline. How did this dual strand storyline come to you?

I think it began years ago with the stories my grandmother used to tell me about her childhood and adolescence in the Central West of NSW. Those tales provided the genesis of Amy’s storyline. Then, in the early 2000s, my husband, son and I discovered a little cottage on the outskirts of an historic country town. It was love at first sight, and suddenly I was what country people are wont to call a ‘blow-in’. Not only that, I had my concept for the book. A dual narrative about two women in the same rural town, then and now. A chance to explore the nuances of social change, particularly as they relate to women, and a reminder of the universal constants that exist no matter what the era, such as love and loss, grief and renewal.

Q. Which characters did you find first - the modern storyline with Angie or Amy's story in the past?

Amy came first, inspired in part by my grandmother and her stories. Angie’s narrative contains some aspects of my own. But even though we share certain interests – gardening, cooking, reading, painting, sketching and classic movies, we are very different people. That’s the freedom of being a writer. You can take your characters to places where you might never go – in a physical and a psychological sense. And you can allow them to make their own choices and then watch the consequences unfold.

Q. I loved the idea of the art project which Angie set for her art classes where all the students did something related to the town either past or present. Have you been involved in something similar in your town or was this an idea that you came up with just for the book?

Yes, I was once involved in a local exhibition which required us to create ‘Visions’ of our district. I painted a series of scenes that I called ‘Forest Fragments’. A detail from one of them appears as the banner on my website. I also enjoy sketching historical buildings. That’s why I gave Angie the task of sketching the series of buildings related to Amy. I actually did some rough drawings of them myself, trying to capture the images I could see in my mind’s eye. It was an interesting exercise.

Q. Your own love of animals shows through the pages particularly for platypuses and alpacas. What is it about these two animals in particular that you love?

I’d never seen a platypus until the day the real estate agent took us to inspect a property on the banks of a spring-fed creek (it was the place we went on to buy) and there he was, duck-diving in the middle of the day as if he knew he was required to provide the ‘wow’ necessary to clinch the deal.

I feel incredibly privileged to be able to wake in the morning, look out the window and spot the concentric circular ripples which are the evidence that a platypus is feeding below the surface. Whenever we have friends to stay, they can’t wait to see the platypus. But he’s an enigmatic creature. He doesn’t appear on demand. Quite the opposite. And when he actually does turn up, he doesn’t stay in the same place for long. One minute he’ll be there, the next he’s gone, leaving only a few bubbles on the surface to remind us that he’s been a real presence and not simply an apparition.

What do I love about alpacas? Their huge eyes, the soft bleating sound they make, their long necks and woolly coats, and their environmentally-friendly padded feet. I don’t own any, but I can always dream …

Q. The book includes an interracial relationship. Whilst that wasn't unheard of at the time the book was set, it was rare and it would have been very difficult for those involved. How difficult was it to balance the historical story against modern sensibilities when you were writing this particular relationship?

In dealing with that relationship, there was always the danger of writing the past from a twenty-first century perspective and imposing a contemporary imperative on the story which wouldn’t have existed at the time. It was a balancing act and I’m not sure whether I’ve succeeded or not. I wanted to convey the prevailing view among the white colonials that a close, personal relationship of that kind was unacceptable. Of course, there were progressive citizens in nineteenth-century society who thought otherwise and we meet some of them in the book, but they would have been in the minority.

Q. In the notes at the end of the book you mention that there will be a sequel to Mr Chen's Emporium. Can you give us a bit of a clue as to where the story goes next? Does the sequel have a title yet?

I’ve finished the first draft of modern-day sequel, tentatively called WOMEN OF A CERTAIN AGE. There are two female protagonists, one of whom is Angie Wallace who’s fighting a battle to save Charles Chen’s emporium.

Thanks for the insightful questions, Marg.

**Thanks to the publisher for the book and the opportunity to ask Ms O'Brien a few questions.


  1. Great review and wonderful Q&A, Marg. I think I too engaged more with Amy than I did with Angie--in part because of my own experiences in a multicultural marriage, I think. Although I didn't necessarily agree with Angie's decisions, it's interesting that it's she, and not the other person, who seems to receive our "blame". I was personally quite fascinated by the fact that this relationship is scarcely questioned by the townsfolk, and how they assumed that things were already in full swing (ahem) even before they were.

    1. Good points. I guess the reason why I focussed more on Angie is because she is clearly the main character whereas he is an important secondary character.

      My ex was African so I too have some experience in multicultural relationships. I started to talk about that aspect a little but couldn't quite fit it in the way I wanted to without making the post longer than it already was!



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