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.
Read an extract from the novel here, and join us this Thursday 14 June at Hill of Content Bookshop in Melbourne for a free in-conversation event with Mira Robertson and KYD First Book Club coordinator Ellen Cregan!
If I had finished this novel twenty-five years ago, when I wrote the first few thousand words before abandoning it in favour of a screenwriting career, it would have been a different, darker story, reflecting my own youthful angst. Instead, all these years later, I discovered that I wanted to create a work that was both funny as well as moving, a story populated with flawed yet relatable characters readers could fall a little (or even a lot) in love with.
The Unexpected Education of Emily Dean was inspired by tales my mother told me about her girlhood during the Second World War, when she, like Emily, spent long holidays at her grandparents’ property in the Western District of Victoria. Characters such as Claudio, the Italian prisoner of war; Lydia, the gun-toting aunt; Eunice, the poor relation, and Grandmother with her snobbery and determination not to let standards slip, all owe something to my mother’s stories, although I am sure if those individuals were alive and reading the book today, they would not recognise themselves. A single characteristic was all I needed, and from small beginnings, the men and women who people the novel, took over.
Of course I don’t mean to say that I was simply the amanuensis, channelling characters in some spooky spiritual way. A novel is the end result of dedicated hard work. It involves the application of craft and the active use of imagination, but it is a fact that the characters in the book began to live inside me and there was a sense in which I had to take my lead from them, rather than the other way around.
The characters in the book began to live inside me and there was a sense in which I had to take my lead from them, rather than the other way around.
As for Emily herself, she is neither my mother (who loved her country relatives and never wanted to go home) nor me, although on that latter point, it is possible that I am an unreliable narrator, and that through Emily I have revealed more of myself than I wish to admit.
Certainly, the physical world I describe in the novel is based on my own childhood – the homestead and surrounding landscape of swamps, paddocks and bush. I grew up on a farm; although my mother had to return to Melbourne at the end of her childhood holidays, the influence of those visits was profound — she ended up marrying a farmer and lived the rest of her life in the country.
While my mother’s stories provided the spark for the novel, what fascinated me was to explore this insular and isolated world from the point of view of a 14-year-old girl who is on the verge of becoming a woman. A girl with all the prejudices of her particular background, who, sent away from home, gets thrown onto her own resources and begins to discover the world and herself, anew. It’s that moment, as I remember it, when everything familiar becomes strange. It’s such a powerful time, when one’s body is not only changing, but making itself felt in entirely new ways that are both exciting and disturbing. And more than that, it’s also a time when the people around you become three dimensional, with thoughts, feelings and motivations that are suddenly of great – and often perplexing – interest.
It’s such a powerful time, when one’s body is not only changing, but making itself felt in entirely new ways that are both exciting and disturbing.
Once she arrives at the family property (‘We don’t say farm, Emily. The word is property,’ Grandmother corrects her) everything that Emily believes or thinks she knows is thrown into doubt. One of the conscious choices I made in writing the story was to hold the reader in Emily’s point of view, so that you’re seeing the world through her eyes, but as an adult (young, old or somewhere in-between) you’re seeing and understanding all kinds of things that she is still coming to grips with. Emily’s youth, her innocence, means that readers view the world through a filter of irony and that, I think, is one of the real pleasures of the novel. It allowed me a light touch with which to explore the themes of the book: the divisions of class, race and religion, the impact of war, female sexuality, love and desire.