Kill Your Darlings’ First Book Club pick for June is The Unexpected Education of Emily Dean by Mira Robertson (Black Inc), a charming coming-of-age novel about desire, deceit and self-discovery. Read an extract from the novel here, and read the author’s own words on the process of writing the novel here.
It’s 1944, Australia is at war, and fifteen-year-old Emily Dean has been sent from her inner-Melbourne home to live with relatives in rural Victoria while her mother recovers from an apparent mental breakdown. Told by her father that her stint in the country is only temporary, it quickly becomes apparent he is dumping her there until she can return to school following the end of the summer holidays. But Emily is adaptable, and eventually settles in to life at Mount Prospect. Between her chores, Emily wanders around the grounds of Mount Prospect, daydreams and desperately attempts to befriend her young aunt, Lydia. She also spends hours exploring the study of her uncle William, who is away fighting in the war. William’s library is extensive, and book-lover Emily can’t resist. She is a girl whose greatest desire is to read Jane Eyre but is only ever given hymn books, so the discovery of such a huge collection of literary works is like a dream come true. However, as she’s making her way through William’s books, he returns from the war due to injury – he has had his leg amputated beneath the knee. William is cantankerous, disgusted by himself, and drinking heavily. Emily is confused and a little afraid of William, but is determined to connect with her uncle over their shared love of literature.
This novel is an endearing coming of age story, in which the protagonist grows out of her naivety about the people in her life. But it is also a story that also situates itself in a tumultuous period of contemporary Australian history. In 1944, World War II was coming to an end, but fears of Axis invasion were still very real for some Australians. In this novel, Robertson shows the reader this period of Australian history through the eyes of a young girl navigating the awkwardness and naivety of her teenage years far away from home.
This novel is an endearing coming of age story, in which the protagonist grows out of her naivety…But it is also situates itself in a tumultuous period of contemporary Australian history.
There are so many aspects of modern Australian history that have been swept under the rug and forgotten about. With Emily Dean, Robertson explores one such history – namely the experiences of foreign prisoners of war in Australia. During World War II there were a number of POW camps scattered across Australia, which interned ‘enemy aliens’ from various countries and for various reasons. Some prisoners were Axis soldiers who had surrendered, while others were foreign nationals locked away simply for having Japanese, Italian or German heritage. POWs deemed to be trustworthy were sent to farms in the area surrounding these camps to be used as labourers, as many young Australian men who would have traditionally filled these roles were away fighting. Claudio, a farmhand at Mount Prospect, is one such POW – after his surrender to Allied forces, he is transported to Australia and eventually sent out from his internment camp to work for Emily’s family.
When Emily meets Claudio, she is completely intrigued. He is a dark, handsome stranger from an exotic place, and his being there is by far the most exciting thing going on around Mount Prospect. There are many sweet moments between Claudio and the Mount Prospect household – he teaches the cranky cook, Della, to make pasta, and has Emily teaches him English. But there are also darker moments – certain members of the Mount Prospect household and the wider community are incredibly hostile towards him and the other POWs; he fights with some of the other Italian POWs in the area because of his political views. One of the many benefits of a teenage protagonist such as Emily is that she doesn’t know much about the world yet – she’s not quite a blank slate, but is extremely curious. Her naivety is a clever way for Robertson to educate her readers about Australia’s internment camps – as Emily learns about them, so does the book’s audience. As she gets to know Claudio, Emily begins to see the sadness of his situation – we feel her sense of shame as she realises that Claudio is not just a character in her life story, but someone who is suffering.
Claudio desperately wants to go home to his family, and at one point shows Emily photographs of his loved ones, some of whom he has lost due to the war. He is a long way from home in a strange and often hostile environment; he is literally a prisoner.
One of the many benefits of a teenage protagonist such as Emily is that she doesn’t know much about the world yet – she’s not quite a blank slate, but is extremely curious.
Robertson has an undeniable affection towards her protagonist, and for this reason, some of the more difficult concepts the book touches on can seem somewhat rose-tinted. Emily is never on the ‘wrong side’ of history – she loudly disagrees with many of the racist and xenophobic attitudes of her family and peers. When Aunt Lydia, hearing of her fiance’s return from the war, runs away with her female lover, Emily is intrigued rather than scandalised. This is a feature of many contemporary historical novels: a protagonist who seems a few steps ahead of their time with regard to social and cultural sensitivity. While this can take you out of the world of the novel, it would perhaps be far more difficult to meaningfully connect to a protagonist whose views align with those common to the era their story is set in.
The Unexpected Education of Emily Dean is an enjoyable read, and a relatable vantage point into a lesser-known aspect of Australian wartime history. In Emily I found the overactive imagination of Catherine Moreland, and a little of the strong personality of Jane Eyre. It’s clear that this book is modelled after aspects of those classic novels, and feels like a mini-bildungsroman. Even though Emily might occasioanlly seem a little out of her time, this is a coming-of-age tale with so many of the classic novel features our protagonist loves so well.