by Andrea McKenzie Raine
Linda Rogers’ novel, The Empress Letters, is a tale abstractly woven into the historical setting of Victoria, BC during the early 20th century. The story is told through current, intimate letters written by the mother and narrator, Poppy, to her daughter who is lost in China. The word ‘lost’ holds multiple meanings, and sets a tone or an understanding for what is occurring in the narrator’s mind. There are many lost or buried pieces. With the assistance of her travelling companion, Tony, Poppy is on a quest to reclaim her daughter as well as her own truths. The unfiltered letters reveal a strange and hard truth about the unfolding events of the mother’s life. They are also an attempt to explain a family history and rekindle a strained relationship, which has not been reconciled.
The narrator’s experiences of growing into adolescence are somewhat shielded in a proverbial snow-globe of luxury, which is inevitably shattered by the larger, grittier world as she witnesses the human reality of the Chinese slaves “Coolies”, the emergence of World War I, the facades of social hierarchy, and her own confusing desires of coming into womanhood. Her perspective is quickly moved from the smaller scope of her privileged existence to a larger, more philosophical, political and sexually-charged coming of age. Sexual boundaries are crossed, as well as geographical and imaginary ones, which are often skewed by the narrator’s younger, innocent recollections while trying to associate worlds.
Poppy uses art, particularly painting, to define her world through the mentorship of the historical Emily Carr’s free-thinking ideas and committed lifestyle. The historical figures, such as Emily Carr and the Chinese slaves, ‘paint the scenery’ for both social and political events in a turbulent era. For instance, the novel delves into the mysterious underground world of Chinatown during the turn of the century. There is a lesson of place and identity, ritual rhythms, and being safe with your own kind.
There is also constancy in fighting for independence, which resonates through the narrator and her childhood companions. At the same time, they are each in desperate need of support, affection and stability. Poppy revisits her important rites of passage, as she literally journeys across the Pacific Ocean on a cruise ship, The Empress of Asia, to rescue her daughter from the strange, mystical holds of China.
Throughout the letters, there are currents of disruptive change, which are personal, historical or both. The ground shifts underneath like the San Andreas Fault, as Poppy rides the moving earth and adapts to new surroundings in her childhood home, or learns to accept what will not change such as the cruel effects of her distant relationship with her own mother.