Then – 1872
Amy Duncan was only halfway through her journey and already she was longing for Sydney and its cool harbour breezes. As she waited at the coach stop outside Granthurst railway station, her new straw bonnet, tilted forward in the latest fashion, could do nothing to protect her face from the midday sun. If only she could board the next train back to Redfern terminal, she would be in her aunt’s house by suppertime. But that was the wishful thinking of a selfish girl who cared only to lead her own life. And that life she must forget for the foreseeable future. Her father had written saying her mother was ill –not dangerously so, but serious enough to need help with the chores. It was Amy’s duty to join her family.
Tears streaming down her face, Angie Wallace sat on the hardwood floor of the sitting room, hemmed in by a circle of cardboard packing boxes, most of them still unopened. She should have known better. It was the photos that had set her off – they always did. Just when she had passed a full day without a single tear. Just when she’d started to imagine little scenes from a possible future, instead of playing the past like a movie channel in her head, month after month.
Amy and Angie live 140 years apart. What links them is Millbrooke, a gold mining town in rural New South Wales. Amy, a young idealistic 17-year-old travels there to join her family who moved there earlier, while she remained in Sydney to finish her education. Angie, a recent widow with two independent sons, is dragged there by her well-meaning friends for a weekend away. They are trying to break into the grief that has consumed Angie since her husband’s death. Neither Amy or Angie can have imagined the effect Millbrooke would have on them. And neither could have imagined the link that would connect them through the years. The emporium of the title fascinates Amy, as does its owner, Mr Chen. He is a man who embraces both his birth culture and his adopted Australian home. Not an easy thing to do in a goldmining town that is quite hostile to some of his countrymen. Amy, educated in the city cannot see why anyone should be treated differently just because of his culture. In the present, Angie struggles with similar issues of prejudice, this time over the potential establishment of a new mine, as well as showing her own prejudices about her landlord.
Mr Chen’s Emporium is a story of beginnings and endings, of love and loss. It is a story of prejudice and open-mindedness too, set in a country town at times of change. At the beginning, Amy is a young character full of the wonder and joy of life, and the certainty of youth. Angie, on the other hand, is mired in her loss and unable to find a way forward. They find judgement and support in likely and unlikely places and must make their own decisions in the face of strong advice from those around them. Mr Chen’s Emporium swaps between Amy’s and Angie’s story from autumn, through a year to the following autumn. Each season section is headed by a quote from Galland’s Aladdin and his Magic Lamp, translated from French. An entertaining read about rural life historically and now.
Mr Chen’s Emporium, Deborah O’Brien
Random House 2012 ISBN: 9781742755540
review by Claire Saxby, Children’s Author
Available from good bookstores or online.