Kill Your Darlings’ First Book Club pick for June is The Unexpected Education of Emily Dean by Mira Robertson (Black Inc). In 1944 Emily Dean is dispatched from Melbourne to stay with her father’s relatives in rural Victoria. Feeling lonely and isolated, Emily can’t wait to go home – but things start to improve when she encounters Claudio, the Italian prisoner of war employed as a farm labourer, and when her uncle William returns home wounded, he’s rude, traumatised and mostly drunk, yet a passion for literature soon draws them together. Funny, wry and affecting, The Unexpected Education of Emily Dean is a charming coming-of-age novel about desire, deceit and self-discovery.
Passengers moved along the platform, opening carriage doors and saying their goodbyes. Emily leaned out of the train window. She gave her father an especially pleading look.
‘There are snakes and spiders and I’m allergic to sheep. Please don’t make me go.’
She knew it was hopeless – the train was due to leave at any moment – but she had to make one last attempt. If nothing else, she wanted her father to feel guilty for bundling her off against her will.
‘Don’t be silly,’ he replied, impervious to her tragic countenance. ‘No-one is allergic to sheep. Fresh air, sunshine and the splendours of nature. You’ve always enjoyed it.’
But that was on her last visit, ages ago. She’d been thirteen then and knew no better.
‘I can’t go. Mummy needs me.’
She wished she hadn’t said Mummy as it sounded immature, and now it was she who felt a twinge of guilt, knowing that it wasn’t about helping her mother at all, but the thought of spending weeks with ancient relatives in the middle of nowhere.
Further up the platform, the stationmaster blew his whistle. Carriage doors slammed shut as her father reached out and patted her arm.
‘Send my love to your grandmother and the others,’ he said, ignoring her last words. ‘Make yourself useful and don’t be a burden. And don’t forget to collect your suitcase when you arrive at the station. As soon as things are back to normal, I’ll come for you.’
When would that be? There were still five weeks to go before school began again; she could not possibly stay that long. But there was no time to ask – her father had already begun to hurry away. She leaned further out of the window, catching a glint of his clerical collar. Although there was no hope of a reprieve, she still longed for him to turn and give her one last wave, but he passed through the gate without looking back. Tears stung her eyes, and she had to blink twenty-three times to stop them. She hoped that the counting thing had not begun again; she was far too old for that sort of nonsense.
It was a relief when nobody entered her compartment. She did not want strangers staring at her reddened eyes or asking dull questions in their attempts to make polite small talk. Nor, on the other hand, did she want the journey to be filled with interesting conversation. She was, after all, travelling against her will. Nevertheless, she was surprised to have the compartment on her own for there had been quite a crowd on the platform. Perhaps they were all in the second-class carriages.
She did not want strangers staring at her reddened eyes or asking dull questions in their attempts to make polite small talk.
The train shunted forwards, causing her head to knock against the back of the seat. A headache began to throb, and she embraced the pain with the fervour of a martyr. See what you’ve done. It was a silent accusation to her father and she hoped that he felt it.
When the train had left the city behind, she leaned out of the window again, feeling the air whip against her face. Once more tears leaked from her eyes, but this time it was only an effect of the wind. Her hair flew up, twisting and flapping as if it had a life of its own. She felt something stick to her cheek and discovered a fleck of sticky black soot. She closed the window and sat down.
There were hours to go before the train reached her station. She thought about getting Middlemarch from her satchel in the overhead luggage rack. It was the perfect opportunity to make a start on the book, despite the disappointing reality that it was not Jane Eyre. Since that day at school when Dorothy had rapturously declared it to be the best book ever written, and Mr Rochester the most romantic hero of all time, she’d been desperate to read it. Dorothy hadn’t told her directly of course; she’d been addressing her friends, a group in which Emily, hovering nearby, was not included.
Leading up to Christmas she’d made it quite clear to her parents: all she wanted was a copy of Jane Eyre. Seeing a book- shaped present under the Christmas tree – a sawn-off branch from a garden shrub that her mother had propped up in the corner of the living room and decorated with balls of cottonwool ‘snow’ – she’d been convinced it was the longed-for novel. But it was not to be. Worse still, the copy of Middlemarch did not even look new. She was sure it had come from her father’s study. He did not believe in unnecessary expenditure, especially with a war on and so many in need.
At the third stop, a woman in a green dress entered her compartment. Emily knew the name of the station even though it was blocked out to confuse the Japs in the event of invasion. To date no such invasion had occurred, but she had heard Father on the telephone mentioning the possibility to his friend, the Very Reverend Eric Simons. Father was only a Reverend and although Emily had never asked him, it sounded like an inferior title. Talking to the Very Reverend, her father had muttered the words last line of defence. They had an ominous ring.
The copy of Middlemarch did not even look new… [Father] did not believe in unnecessary expenditure, especially with a war on and so many in need.
‘Would you mind closing the door, dear?’ the Green Dress asked her. ‘I’m susceptible to draughts.’
She rose to shut the door, feeling rather put upon as it was the Green Dress who had failed to close it properly in the first place. She murmured the word susceptible to herself, feeling the s’s slither on her tongue. Her fellow traveller caught her eye and smiled, but Emily looked away, determined to remain aloof.
Barely a minute passed before the woman spoke again. ‘Would you like one, dear?’ she said, holding out a large square tin. ‘Lovely corned beef and pickle. Awfully tasty.’
They did sound tempting, particularly as she’d forgotten to take the sandwiches her mother had made for her. Father had been calling out from the car. They were going to be late. In any case, her mother’s sandwiches were often unreliable, spoiled by incompatible fillings like jam and gherkin. But how could she accept the awfully tasty corned beef and pickle when she was travelling under protest? It would undermine her suffering.
Half an hour later, as they approached another station, the woman packed away the tin and prepared to get off. How Emily wished she could change her mind. All she could think of was sinking her teeth into the fresh white bread, her tastebuds tingling with the mustardy sharpness of the pickle and the saltiness of the corned beef. But after rejecting the initial offer of sustenance, she didn’t have the nerve to ask.
Hoist with your own petard, her mother would have said, as the sandwiches departed.
There was nothing left to do but try to begin Middlemarch. Putting off the moment once again, she gazed out of the window and watched a tractor trundle across a paddock. A horse took fright near the fence line and bolted along beside the train briefly until it was left behind. Two boys hung off a gate, waving. Then the paddocks ended and bush took over. Gum trees with their drooping leaves, and flashes of red from the bottlebrushes. She closed her eyes, listening to the sound of the wheels, the train rushing onwards, delivering her to her fate.