Planet Books


The Unexpected Education of Emily Dean by Mira Robertson



In The Unexpected Education of Emily Dean, author Mira Robertson effectively conjures a convincing 1944 rural Australian setting, replete with the all the small town prejudices of the era. This often bucolic setting provides the backdrop for an illuminating and sometimes gently humorous coming-of-age story which, though occasionally uneven in its characterisation, nonetheless proves to be an entertaining page turner.

Ripped away from her Melbourne home to stay with her relatives who are pastoralists in country Victoria, the eponymous Emily Dean, 14 going on 15, finds herself plunged into the very proper and class-conscious world of Mount Prospect. Presided over by her matriarchal grandmother, Emily soon discovers that everything at the faded homestead hinges on the maintenance of appearances and keeping a stiff upper lip in the face of the war.

Emily is kept in the dark, her relatives very much subscribing to the Victorian adage that children should be seen and not heard. The facade of proprietary is all smoke and mirrors, though, and Mount Prospect is rife with secrets and enigmas. Where does Emily’s mysterious Aunt Lydia keep disappearing to? What is wrong with her uncle William? Why do Grandmother and the waspish Eunice, a distant cousin, refuse to tell her about her mother? Is she really in a “loony bin”? In finding answers to these questions, Emily undergoes a journey of self-discovery and awakening that makes compelling reading.

Emily is the antithesis of a worldly heroine when we first meet her: she frequently has her nose stuck in a book, she’s painfully naive and seems horribly unsophisticated when she compares herself to her glamorous and aloof Aunt Lydia. Homesick, friendless and isolated, Emily finds solace in fantasising about Claudio, a handsome Italian prisoner of war who works on the farm. She is not all fluff and nonsense, however: Emily is also headstrong and curious, and dreams of one day becoming a writer. In this regard, she reminded me a little of Miles Franklin’s fiery Sybylla Melvyn, the heroine of the iconic My Brilliant Career.

Although The Unexpected Education of Emily Dean doesn’t have the depth of Franklin’s classic, it is nonetheless an engaging tale and would appeal especially to those who enjoy the coming-of-age genre or novels with an Australian setting.

Highly recommended.


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