Book reviews, new books, publishing news, book giveaways, and author interviews

Book Review: Mr Chens Emporium by Deborah OBrien (love in Goldrush-era Australia)

 Book Review: Mr Chens Emporium by Deborah OBrien (love in Goldrush era Australia)

Its not as if you know these people, says Angies son Tim. Youre acting as if theyre your long-lost relatives when theyre just people from the nineteenth century. They have no relevance to your life.

Its a sentiment with which any reader or researcher would disagree. Its curious, isnt it, how no matter how vastly different our lives and experiences, its possible to draw parallels, to tease out motifs and themes. The ability to make connections is such an important part of being a social creature, and its key to be able to use these connections in a way that informs and influences our own lives. Without vicarious experience or exposure, wed have to figure out everything on our own, and thats a tough ask.

Mr Chens Emporium, the debut novel from Deborah OBrien, delights in comparing and contrasting the lives of the teenage Amy Duncan, whose story takes place in the nineteenth century, and that of middle-aged Angie Wallace in the present day. Through a dual-narrative approach, OBrien explores the lives of these two women, darting between past and present in such a way that its very easy to forget that theres any temporal difference between Amy and Angie at all. Its not an easy conceit to pull off, but for the most part OBrien does so admirably.

Recently widowed Angie has moved from bustling Sydney to quaint, quiet Millbrooke, an erstwhile Gold Rush town thats now the preserve of middle-aged tree-change seekers. She needs the space to heal, to reflect, and to contemplate what it means not to be part of a couple after so many years. She moves into the ramshackle Manse, and in doing so finds herself looking both to the future and to the past. The future through her art classes and her efforts to restore the building, and the past through her discovery of a box of knickknacks that once belonged to Amy Duncan, with whose story she promptly becomes fascinated.

Though a hundred years separates the two women, and their narratives are in very many ways divergent, there are so many similarities in outlook that the book forms a fascinating latticework of theme and emotional resonance. Compare Tims pooh-poohing of Angies flights of fancy and the rich tapestry of imagination that nourishes her in so many ways with this similar observation from the perspective of Amy:

She began to wonder if she had been investing a special significance in the proprietor and his wares that was merely a product of her overactive imagination. Yet, as she gazed across the street at the blood-red doors and iron lace dragons, it seemed to her that his really could be an oasis of beauty in a dusty provincial town, a storehouse of possibilities

There is so much questioning and wonderment throughout the book, with each of the charactersand not just the major onesbeset by all manner of what ifs. Not to mention a willingness to look to the rebels of the world for guidance or inspiration. Though this doesnt necessarily always result in the right choices, as Angies dalliance with a rather unsuitable chap illustrates, it does encourage the making of decisions, the questioning of norms, the challenging of assumptions. For example, Amy looks to literature as her own personal manual of comportmentand its rather the case that any memorable heroine of the western canon has to have something of the rebel about her, or thered be nothing to write about. When in doubt, Amy always sought solutions from her reading. What would her namesake, Little Dorrit, have done in the circumstances?

Prejudice and parochialism are also key themes of the novel, and are explored not only throughout both timelines, but across the two as well. Amys interest in Mr Chen is something for which she is constantly censured, and OBrien deftly explores the notions of Othering and passing. Mr Chens identity is almost purgatorial: he exists between Chinese culture and Anglo Australian culture, and as a result passes as a member of neither. No matter how Mr Chen positions himself, he is in defiance of the norms of a given group, and through his relationships with those from either group, hes in turn alienating them as well.

And Amy has her own qualms: is she merely exoticising and seeking the unfamiliar out of escapist intent? Its heart-breaking, and something that resonates with me on a personal level, as I often wonder how my own marriage would have been taken a hundred years ago. (Angie says at one point: Seriously, I wonder if I would have found the courage to defy my parents if theyd forbidden me to see him. Id like to think Id have been brave like Amy. And I wonder the same.)

What remains with me most about the book was how the temporal criss-crossing allows for the highlighting of the arbitrary nature of morality and taboo, and how these are always in flux. The fact that Amys relationship with Mr Chen is seen as nothing short of a moral abomination, and yet Angies relationship with Jack, surely the more morally hazy here, is met with not so much as a raised eyebrowin fact, its expected by the townsfolk.

Though the characters and themes fascinate, the structure is a challenging one. For the most part the dual narrative works well, but there is a little unevenness at times. The book opens with Amys perspective, which positions the reader to expect that her narrative will be the one thats foregrounded, and yet, its Angies that (necessarily, really) takes over, particularly towards the end of the book. I was a little disappointed by this, as there was an element of incompleteness here regarding Amy and her thread. Beginning with Amys narrative also meant that I was positioned to imagine Angie as someone closer in age to Amy, and though its definitely my own prejudices as a twenty-something reader here coming into play, I did find that I had to back-track regarding my conceptions of Angies character. It took me a while to properly find my stride as a reader, but once there I was merrily turning the pages.

In all this is a solid debut with a lot to recommend it, and I look forward to seeing more from OBrien.

Rating: star Book Review: Mr Chens Emporium by Deborah OBrien (love in Goldrush era Australia)star Book Review: Mr Chens Emporium by Deborah OBrien (love in Goldrush era Australia)star Book Review: Mr Chens Emporium by Deborah OBrien (love in Goldrush era Australia)blankstar Book Review: Mr Chens Emporium by Deborah OBrien (love in Goldrush era Australia)blankstar Book Review: Mr Chens Emporium by Deborah OBrien (love in Goldrush era Australia) (good)

With thanks to Random House Australia for the review copy

Support Read in a Single Sitting by purchasing Mr Chen’s Emporium from

Amazon | Book Depository UK | Book Depository USABooktopia | The Nile

See also our interview with Deborah OBrien


  1. A thoughtful review as always Stephanie!

    • Stephanie /

      Thanks, Shelleyrae! We had similar opinions about this one, I thinkI agree with you about the fact that theres no moral parallel between Amy and Angies respective relationships, and I definitely see your point about it souring you to Angie (not to mention her partner) as a character. I had a similar reaction. But what I found really interesting was how the townsfolk just completely expected it to happen, and didnt bat an eyelid when it did, cf the surely much more wholesome relationship between Amy and Chen! It really made me think about how morality and prejudice is just constantly shifting in our world, and also about the lenses through which we view others and their actions.

      • Stephanie /

        I should clarify: theres not a moral parallel between the characters and their relationships, but I think that was intentional. Its just a risky decision for any author to make, as it risks turning the reader off a character.

  2. Deborah OBriens MR CHENS EMPORIUM is a "solid debut with a lot to recommend it," according to @readinasitting