Deborah O’Brien’s The Jade Widow caught my attention for two reasons: one, it is set in Australian society in the 1880s, and two, O’Brien’s two protagonists are women. I have read very little, fiction or otherwise, set in Australia in that time period, particularly with a narrative revolving around the role of women at the time.
The Jade Widow is the sequel to Mr Chen’s Emporium, and continues the story of Eliza Miller, who is attempting to forge a career as one of Australia’s first female doctors, and Amy Chen, who is still mourning the death of her husband twelve years after the event, and has big plans for establishing a grand hotel in Millbrooke in country New South Wales.
Although I hadn’t read the prequel, I found it easy to slip into the world of The Jade Widow. O’Brien’s characters are full of life, and her writing sucks the reader into the time period and holds them there as her two strong female protagonists each try to carve a place for themselves in a man’s world. Several prominent figures from Australia’s history make appearances in the book, and O’Brien’s writing wonderfully captures what life was like in ‘the colony’ before federation.
Even so, at times the dialogue in the book feels clumsy, as though O’Brien is trying to offload as much information about the era as possible through her characters’ interactions, and that pulled me out of the story and made me feel like I was reading a history textbook. Despite this, the overall charm of the book is enough to overcome these moments.
The biggest disappointment for me with this book was the ending. It felt very abrupt, and many of the issues discussed in the novel, such as whether a woman can have a career and a family, were left unfinished and undealt with. I can accept that these issues were very new ideas for the era, and that even now women do not have all the answers and are still trying to balance family and career, yet I wished for there to be more resolution in both Eliza and Amy’s narratives, offering more closure to this particular chapter of their lives.
Still, it was refreshing to read a novel about Australian women and their place in Australian society in the 1880s, and O’Brien does a wonderful job of portraying the expectations of women and the obstacles they faced at the time. This novel made me thankful for those women who lived in the years before me, who pioneered the women’s movement and feminism, and made it ordinary, not extraordinary, for women to have careers in whichever field they choose.
Published by Random House, 2013