Today’s book review is one of my favourite types: the first. An author’s debut novel. There’s something about discovering a new author, getting to know their writing, that excites me. The book is called, ‘Mr Chen’s Emporium’ and the author is Deborah O’Brien. Random House provided me with this book for free in return for an honest review. Thank you Random House, and please know that receiving this for free will not cause any bias towards the review. We good? Ok.
A lot of books these days have, I think, really silly covers. Especially books written by women. I love the cover of Mr Chen’s Emporium. It reflects so well what the story tells. This is such a thoroughly researched historical novel, that to put an infantalising ‘chick lit’ style cover on it would have been shamefully insulting. As it already is to many female writers.
Let me tell you a little about the author first…
Deborah O’Brien lives between the city and the country, is a teacher, writer and visual artist. In the back of the book was a lot of information on how/where she researched Australia’s history for her novel, and I was impressed with how thorough she was. I feel it made the book that much more believable.
What I liked about the book was that Deborah wrote it from the points of view of two main characters: Amy, a 17 year old old girl living in 1872 and Angie Wallace, a middle aged recently widowed woman who becomes passionate about researching Amy’s life. What makes this storytelling style so powerful in this book, is that it clearly shows how different times were then and now.
Amy is a well educated girl, yet it’s obvious early on that she is restricted by her strict religious upbringing and O’Brien puts great emphasis on just how primitive times were in the 1800′s. Amy, about half way through the book, is told about a new discovery in the medical field which is quite radical: germs. This frightens her to the point where she begs her friend to not tell her anymore about it!
Amy’s life is ruled by etiquette and this impacts her decisions and interactions with others. She is often found second-guessing her words and behaviour, fearing she may have overstepped her boundaries. It’s also this etiquette that, although well-educated in a conventional sense, leads to a fairly sheltered existence on some levels. An example that comes to mind is that Amy had never heard about women not menstruating when they become pregnant, and when hers stops, she simply believes it happened because she was married! As I read the book, I had a lot of ‘aw!’ moments, thinking how sweet and backward people were in those times, but again, Deborah did a great job of showing just how little people talked about bodily functions in those days, for fear of being impolite.
Angie, the other main character, decides to move out of Sydney to make a tree change. Hmm, no, can’t relate to that at all. Kidding! Suffice it to say, that as a tree-changer myself, I was instantly drawn to this book and couldn’t wait to read the story of someone else making the change. I was nodding my head in places, especially when her friends were incredulous about her choice to move. Been there!
Angie’s story centres largely on her healing after her husband died recently. It’s sad to read, but beautiful to watch how she grows as a person and finds new ‘legs’ on her own. I won’t say too much for those who want to read it, but let’s just say that toward the end of the book, her and Amy have much in common, and it’s easy to see why/how Angie was able to become so invested in Amy’s history.
As a tree changer, I devoured the progress Angie made on renovating her house. I was most envious of her budget to do this, but alas, I don’t think my partner would like it if I brought in a Clint Eastwood doppelganger to rent out a room for $900 a week! Angie must’ve been feeling lucky…punk. I enjoyed watching Angie fall in love with her new country town. Also, going back to the cover of the book; I did feel an instant connection before reading it, and knew it’d interest me early on. The picture of the shop on the cover is very similar to the style of shops in the town I’ve just moved out of. The fictitious town, Millbrooke, was a gold-rush town, much like the town I just left. It really did feel as though this book came to me at a great time. I love when that happens.
This book tells the story of forbidden love, which hinges around a lot of racism of the 1800′s. Amy falls in love with a ‘Chinaman’, Mr Chen (don’t forget, there was no political correctness back then!), which just so happens to be the exact type of person her Scottish reverend father, hates the most. Amy has been raised to be a dutiful, obedient daughter, so it becomes interesting to see just how far she will go to defy her father for the man she loves.
O’Brien painted a mental/visual feast with her description of Mr Chen’s shop. I wanted to smell the teas he sold and wrap myself in his exotic bolts of silk. The author draws many inferences to the book, Alladin when talking about Mr Chen and his store, and as it progresses, the pair’s relationship. In fact, it’s interesting that O’Brien did the same throughout the various stages of their courtship, referring to Amy’s favourite books of the time. It’s obvious that Amy is naive about romance, and much like ourselves as teens may have related our experiences to television and movies, Amy’s books give her a starting point to try to make sense out of her own experiences.
The modern-day character Angie, did make me mad as hell that she engaged in an affair with a married man. I lost respect for her at that stage of the book, a lot. However, I think the author needed her to do something fairly radical and out of character as she tried to piece her own life back together after the death of her husband. Something healing, just for her. Over time, I came to understand that this was one of those selfish moments of life we all need when we’re in pain. I’ve also been fortunate enough to have never had a partner die, so really, who am I to judge?
Watching Amy develop a romance with Mr Chen is bittersweet. On one hand, there’s a sweet innocence of young love and anticipation. On the other, I felt a real fear for both of them, as they dare to begin an inter-racial relationship in such a backward era. I kept expecting to find Mr Chen bashed, or worse, murdered, for daring to court a white woman.
As O’Brien kept juxtaposing the two women of vastly different generations throughout the book, I couldn’t read this book and not be forced to reflect on how far we’ve come with feminism over time, and to me, that’s a good thing. In Amy’s version of events, there is a lot of subservience, and kow-towing to the ‘head of the house’, and Angie’s life is, of course, not like that at all. She is free to make decisions for herself, although it’s interesting that she has two adult sons who dutifully try to keep an eye out for her during her grief. Although their concern is sweet, it’s obvious that Angie seriously needs to be left alone to find a new life, a new way of doing things, on her own.
This book made me feel deeply sad many times, but if I tell you why, I’ll probably spoil it for you! Let’s just say that Deborah O’Brien is great at tweaking your emotions when you least expect it. In the back of the book, it is mentioned outright that there will be a sequel to this book, which I’m so happy to hear. On finishing the book, I wanted more. There was definitely some unfinished business and questions I want answered. I want to know if Angie is going to end up in a relationship with a certain someone (won’t say more because of spoilers) and I feel as though there’s more historical digging that could possibly take place. Can’t wait for the sequel!
I’m giving this book five stars out of five, because I thoroughly enjoyed it, and couldn’t fault it at all. Have you read it? Do you think you will be?
Note: I wanted to try giving you a written review this time. One lovely reader pointed out that it’s not always easy to view video reviews on the phone and so on, so I thought I’d see if you like the reviews in this format better. Do let me know which you prefer! Of course, if there’s interest in both, I could do both in future. Thoughts?
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