book review: mr chen’s emporium by deborah o’brien

I love historical fiction. There is something about them that draws me in. I love to read someone’s interpretation of the past and wonder how accurate it is to what life was really like. I have also been fascinated by the Gold Rush for years, I’ve often credited having to write a research assignment on the gold rush when I was in year 6 as the time when I knew I wanted to be a writer.

With this as my basis, I simply adored “Mr Chen’s Emporium”, debut novel by Australian author Deborah O’Brien whose tagline “Two women. One Gold Rush town. Then and now…” succinctly tells the reader what to expect. Set in the fictional town of Millbrooke, rural New South Wales in the 1870s (then) and in the present day (now), we are treated to two separate but beautifully intertwined stories.

In the “then”, we are introduced to Amy Duncan, the eighteen-year-old daughter of a minister who has been living in Sydney with her Aunt Molly while attending Miss Howe’s School for Girls. When her mother fell pregnant, Amy was sent to the rural town of Millbrooke where her father was posted. Upon arriving, Amy becomes acquainted with Celestial, Charles Chen and she quickly becomes infatuated.

In the “now”, recently widowed artist Angie Wallace makes the decision to move from Sydney to Millbrooke into the dilapidated house where Amy Duncan once lived with the dream of restoring the manse to its former glory. Her landlord, Richard, uncovers an antique trunk containing remnant’s of Amy’s life and Angie sets out to find out as much as she can about the girl who has both Oriental and European keepsakes.

Put simply, I loved this story. I loved the dual timelines, it is actually a writing style that I find to be the most appealing, when I was reading about Amy, I was curious as to what was going on in Angie’s world and vice versa. The separate story lines could easily stand alone but they are relevant to each other and are blended well together. It is evident that research was undertaken in the writing of this book when it comes to the way “then” is described – the houses, the outfits, the way the characters spoke and what it would have been like in the 1870’s for a white woman to fall in love with a Chinese man.

At its heart, “Mr Chen’s Emporium” is a love story but one in many forms and on many different levels. It is about falling in love with another person, falling in love with yourself, falling in love with a place, falling in love with a way of life, falling in love with the past and falling in love with the future.

I found this novel a bit slow to start – I wasn’t immediately drawn in – and I was worried that I wouldn’t enjoy it, but I was pleasantly (and happily) surprised for the story to develop in such a way that I couldn’t stop reading, I was reading it at my desk at work as I wanted to find out what happened next. The storyline and the characters draw you in, you care about what happens to them and for me, that is the mark of a good book, when you care and I cared.

I would highly recommend this book.

I was sent this book by Random House Australia to review, but this review was not swayed in any way and is a true representation of my feelings. 

Picture supplied by Random House Australia.

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4 comments

  1. Pingback: Mr Chen’s Emporium | Funken Wagnel
  2. Sharon Alger (@Funken_Wagnel) · September 30, 2012

    I loved this book too! Excellent debut, I reckon:)

  3. Pingback: interview with deborah o’brien | the musings of monique

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