Set in the historic Gold-Rush town of Millbrooke in rural NSW, Mr Chen’s Emporium is the tale of Amy and Angie – two women who live in Millbrooke and almost by accident, end up finding it to be the root from with they can grow. The key fact here being that Amy Duncan lived in Millbrooke during the Gold Rush in the 1880’s and Angie Wallace has run from the memory of her late husband and landed in Millbrooke in the present day. In Millbrooke, Deborah O’Brien has created a town that can hold both their stories and provides space for these women to grow.
When Angie rents, and then starts renovating, the Old Manse of Millbrooke she finds a tin box holding Amy Duncan’s treasures from so many years ago. This is the start of her fascination with Millbrooke’s history – what happened to the 18-year-old pretty girl in the portrait photo in the box? Why is it that her headstone is absent from the town cemetery, yet on her her mother’s headstone it is clear that she survived well into the 20th Century? Coupled with a host of charming country-town characters, the mystery of Amy Duncan’s life becomes something that Angie can hold onto while she recovers from the loss of her husband. At the same time, Angie is discovering that the town’s population of platypuses is being threatened by a foreign mining company looking to reopen works at the abandoned diggings. Her new loyalties to the town and its supportive network of people, and her old loyalties to the memory of her husband, are challenged when one of the mine’s fixers, Jack Parker, rents a room from her for a princely sum.
Interleaved with Angie’s discoveries, Amy’s tale is told delicately and well. As the oldest child, and daughter, of a strict minister, she has always learnt how to keep up appearances as the demure and dutiful daughter. But one day in Millbrooke she comes across the Emporium of the title – a treasure house of tea and porcelain, silks and ornaments, run by Charles Chen, a Chinese national who was taken in by the town’s founding family the Millers, when his father was killed in an accident at the goldfields. Charles was so highly esteemed by his adoptive family that they set him up with enough to open his store and he now provides delicate Oriental wares to the town and its surrounds. Amy and Charles are instantly fascinated with one another – but her father is vehemently opposed to having anything to do with the Celestials, or Chinamen, as they are called by the miners.
Both stories are told as if they are happening now. The mystery of Amy in the present day, unfolds in Amy’s own time, while Angie and her new friends gradually prise the details out of the history books and the architecture of the town itself. As the mystery is cleared up, Angie gradually realises that she also is being “cleared up” and finding out that she can make a new, happy life for herself without her husband. While the ending was a little abrupt, Deborah O’Brien has created such a detailed and vivid picture of the town and of the people that I can imagine there will be a follow-up to find out more about the town – then and now.
Available now: Random House RRP$29.95