In Mira Robertson’s debut novel, her eponymous heroine, Emily Dean, is sent to stay with her grandmother and great uncle on their property while her mother recovers from what I can only presume is a nervous breakdown of sorts. It’s most definitely not a farm, as Emily is told by her family, though to the untrained eye, that’s exactly what it is. Miles from the train station, in the middle of a hot, dry summer and surrounded by sheep, cows, dogs, cats and snakes, fourteen year old Emily Dean finds herself exiled, and while her home life is far from happy, she’s none too pleased to be being sent away.
At the property, she is given accommodation in ‘The White Room’, reminiscent of ‘The Red Room’ in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, a book which Emily longs to read but has yet to be given a copy. Instead, she has been given a secondhand copy of Middlemarch, just another thing to make the summer less than perfect, especially as the novel’s heroine Dorothea has a name that sounds just a little bit too much like that of her school bully, Dorothy. Yet in her lonely state, it is to this Dorothy whom she begins to write a letter, detailing the events of the summer, in particular in terms of how they relate to a certain Italian prisoner of war who has been assigned to their station to help. After all, it’s 1944, and there’s a war on, you know.
The plot line of a woman meeting an Italian prisoner of war in such circumstances is not new to me, being the central premise of two of my favourite books of all time—Goldie Goldbloom’s The Paperbark Shoe, and Joy Rhoades’ The Woolgrower’s Companion. What is new about The Unexpected Education of Emily Dean however, is the voice of our young protagonist. She’s bookish and misunderstood, and lonely to boot, and it is her yearning to be accepted by those about her, including her young aunt Lydia that endears Emily to the reader. It is easy to imagine this novel adapted as a film, perhaps starring Angourie Rice or someone of that ilk. Other characters too come to life on the page. Lydia, who spends her time shooting brown snakes. William, who has a secret writer’s room in the stables. Eunice, the ‘aunt’ who came to help out with a birth and never left. These characters have all been fully realised on the page. They all have hopes and dreams and pain of their own, and though Emily isn’t always as insightful as she fancies herself, the book is written in such a way that the reader feels it anyway.
There are times that the novel picks up a thread of a theme but never fully realises it, but for the most part, this novel is written with a great deal of skill when it comes to subtext. Themes of love, family, home and ownership are weaved gently into the plot, which on the surface is just a summer at the farm—sorry, the station—but is really the end of Emily’s childhood.
If you like Rosalie Ham, you’ll love Mira Robertson. Even if you didn’t like The Dressmaker (and I confess I am not a fan), then you’ll enjoy The Unexpected Education of Emily Dean.
FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
The Unexpected Education of Emily Dean by Mira Robertson is available now from Black Inc.