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Mr Chen’s Emporium – Deborah O’Brien and Author Q&A

on September 30, 2012

Mr Chen’s Emporium
Deborah O’Brien
Random House AU
2012, 330p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

In 1872, Miss Amy Duncan is 17. Having enjoyed some time living with her Aunt Molly in Sydney, finishing her education, she finds herself recalled to her family in Millbrooke, a small mining town as her mother is ill and requires her help. Amy is reluctant, she doesn’t see eye to eye with her strict Reverend father and she enjoyed her life in Sydney with her aunt. She has romantic notions of what the mining town will be like but what she gets is a dusty street.

Each morning, Amy must buy bread early for the family and on her way home she passes Mr Chen’s Emporium, an exotic store for the Chinese working on the goldfields, stocking the teas, silks and ornaments that remind them of home. Amy is immediately fascinated by the beautiful smells and the wonderful stock and she’s even more taken by the store’s handsome owner, Mr Charles Chen, a Chinese man who was raised by a local family after the death of his father when he was a boy.

In the present time, Angie is in need of a change. Recently widowed, her friends drag her to Millbrooke for a weekend away and she falls in love with the small town and with the Old Manse, a house up for sale, the one that Amy lived in with her family all those years ago. Her landlord who owns the grandest house in Millbrooke tells her of a trunk containing Amy’s old belongings and Angie becomes fascinated with the young girl, trying to find out what happened to her. She is also taken with the miniature of Mr Charles Chen in the local museum and is surprised to find out that the lives of the two people that fascinate her were inextricably linked.

Shifting between the harsh times of 1872 and the present day, Mr Chen’s Emporium is the story of daring to follow your dreams and your passions in a time when women did no such thing. It is a story of finding yourself and healing after a devastating loss. It’s a mix of the Oriental exotic and the dusty outback, the city and the small country town and most of all, forbidden and new love.

Mr Chen’s Emporium struck me as something I had to read from the moment I was first offered the chance to review it. I don’t read enough books that are set in Australian history, particularly the times of the Goldrush. That’s when the Chinese came to Australia in droves to try their luck and it’s what Charles Chen’s father does in this book. He is killed in an accident when Charles is just 10 but a local family take him in and raise him as a part of their family. Now, in 1872, the local ‘white’ community is half raising up in an attempt to banish the Chinese from the goldfields. It’s a dangerous time to be Chinese and also to be a Chinese that acts more white than not, one who isn’t afraid to stand up and talk about how he feels, about his people and their right to be there just as much as the other prospectors. Charles is so much a character to be admired – handsome, faultlessly polite, possessed of strong convictions and a gentle, generous nature. It’s no wonder that Amy is drawn to him from the first time she meets him and they fall in love, despite the expectations of Charles’ mother back in China for him to go back and marry a bride she has picked, and despite the fact that Amy’s father is a bible-bashing racist, horrified when Charles comes asking for Amy’s hand. She risks everything to be with the man she loves, unafraid of the consequences. I was so invested in their story! I really liked them both – Amy was smart, well-read, a good and dutiful daughter but also very much her own woman. I appreciated that.

In the modern day story we have Angie, a woman in her 50s who was recently widowed in unexpected circumstances. Seeking a change she rents a dilapidated cottage in Millbrooke that was once the home of Amy and her family which she begins to slowly spruice up, a room at a time. She finds a niche for herself in the town, meeting other women when she holds a painting class, establishing a rather offbeat friendship with her eccentric landlord Richard and becoming fascinated with Amy and Charles when she learns of their identities. It takes her some time before she realises the two were deeply connected and Angie is as invested in their story as I was as she tries to find out what happened to them. The only aspect of the story that I didn’t connect with came through Angie’s relationship with a man she takes in as a lodger, which I just couldn’t warm to even given the casual circumstances.

Mr Chen’s Emporium is a wonderful debut novel, rich with history and packed full of stories that I just couldn’t get enough of. I was so thankful when I learned thanks to a Q&A in the back of the book that there’s going to be a sequel featuring Angie. I feel as though a lot of Angie’s journey is still ahead of her so I’m glad that O’Brien is continuing her story. I really enjoyed all of the people in Millbrooke that she became friends with were funny and interesting and I can’t wait to hear more about them as well. And Richard. I loved Richard in all his eccentricity.

Can recommend this one for fans of both contemporary and historical fiction and those who love to read about country Australia.


Book #178 of 2012

Mr Chen’s Emporium is the 59th novel read and reviewed for the Australian Women Writers Challenge, 2012.

Thanks to the publisher Random House AU, I was given an opportunity to ask the author a few questions!

1. Hi Deborah and welcome to my blog – thank you for taking the time to answer some questions. I always love to ask an author how they came to be on the journey of getting published. Can you tell us a little bit about the process for you?

Thank you, Bree, for inviting me to be part of your blog.

I’ve been writing ever since I was a child. I used to create little magazines for my family and illustrate them. Later I wrote romantic stories, accompanied by sketches of the heroines, which filled the backs of my school exercise books. But I didn’t consider becoming a writer or an artist. Those careers seemed as remote and unattainable as being an astronaut. So I majored in French and German and became a high school teacher. When my son was born, I ran painting classes at home, authored non-fiction books in the art, craft and design areas and wrote articles for a range of magazines.

By then I was convinced I could only write facts, and it wasn’t until the early 2000s that my mother, who had always wanted me to write a novel, persuaded me to start writing stories again. Soon I was working on two major projects at once. (I guess I was making up for lost time.) One of them was MR CHEN’S EMPORIUM. The other manuscript was a complicated narrative, interweaving politics with an ill-fated love story. I agonised over that book. It kept me awake at night.

MR CHEN, on the other hand, was largely a joy to write. That bothered me because I’d always imagined the writing process should be painful and tortuous. A friend, who’s a respected writer and editor, reassured me that when things go smoothly, it’s likely to produce a good result. I guess he was right. The other manuscript is still lying in the ‘bottom drawer’, yet to be shown it to anyone except my family and close friends. Meanwhile, MR CHEN found a lovely agent, and not long afterwards I heard that Random House Australia wanted to publish the book. There are still times when I wonder if it’s all been a dream.

2. Are you the sort of writer who must plot everything out extensively, with whiteboards and timelines? Or do you just sit yourself down at the keyboard and let the words flow and let the story take you where it will?

I have to confess that I don’t plan things at all, other than having an initial concept and a few guideposts. For MR CHEN, the premise was: two women, one Gold Rush town, then and now. Because I’m an organised person in everyday life, addicted to checklists and agendas, I find it liberating as a novelist to let my characters run loose (free-range characters!) and allow the story to unfold. I know I should make character cards, timelines, plot charts and chapter summaries, but I can’t bring myself to do it.

For me, writing is a process of discovery and I enjoy the surprises it brings me.

3. What made you choose the Gold Rush as period in time of Australian history to visit? Do you have a special attachment or was it just the best setting for the story you wanted to tell?

I do indeed have a special attachment to the Gold Rush, living as I do in an historic gold town. When I walk along the main street with its Victorian buildings featuring iron-roofed verandahs trimmed with iron-lace, it’s easy to imagine I’m back in the ‘Roaring Days’, as Henry Lawson called them in his famous poem. More than a century and a half later, there is still evidence of the Gold Rush in the surrounding countryside. And even my own little creek would once have been panned for alluvial gold.

4. I absolutely love novels that blend the contemporary and the historical. Was it hard to achieve the right balance between Amy’s story and Angie’s story?

Surprisingly, it wasn’t that difficult to achieve the right balance between the two storylines. In fact, it seemed to happen as if by magic. I would write a chapter in Amy’s life and then decide it was time to move on to Angie and see what she was up to. I never became bored because I was constantly moving between the different perspectives and writing styles.

5. Who are some of your favourite authors?

If I had to choose one contemporary novelist, it would be Kazuo Ishiguro for the elegant simplicity of his prose and the layered stories he tells. THE REMAINS OF THE DAY is one of my favourite novels, along with Harper Lee’s masterpiece, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.

In terms of classic novelists, I adore the Victorians, whom I discovered as a thirteen-year-old, working my way through the school library. My favourites remain the Brontë sisters, but I’m partial to George Eliot too. I also like nineteenth century German author, Theodor Fontane, who wrote EFFI BRIEST. I suppose you could say Effi is a German version of Emma Bovary, but a much more sympathetic character.

I’m fond of French writer, Alain-Fournier. He only produced one novel, the magical LE GRAND MEAULNES, before being killed on the Western Front at the age of twenty-seven. If he had lived, I feel certain he would have been one of the great novelists of the twentieth century.

I’m also a big fan of literary crime by authors such as Ruth Rendell, Ian Rankin and Australia’s own Michael Robotham.

6. How do you like to spend your time when not writing?

Cooking, gardening, reading, drawing, painting and watching old movies.

7. Lastly, describe yourself and your novel in 3 words

Romantic, nuanced, whimsical

Thank you very much to Random House and Deborah for their time in organising these questions and answering them.

2 responses to “Mr Chen’s Emporium – Deborah O’Brien and Author Q&A

  1. […] Mr Chen’s Emporium, by Deborah O’Brien (includes author interview) […]

  2. beverley laing says:

    love this book,when is the sequel coming out

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