Brona is hosting the AusReading Month 2014 and as part of this event I read Rosalie Ham’s “The Dressmaker”.
The story is set in 1950’s Australian outback, the small town of Dungatar and the book opens with the return of Myrtle Dunnage returning to from Melbourne. Tilly as Myrtle now calls herself, is the daughter of Mad Molly and is an illegitimate child. As a child, Tilly was often abused and harassed by other children and has no pleasant memories of her youth! She is now an accomplished dressmaker, trained in London, Spain and France and decided to makes her home at her mother’s house on the hill, at the very end of Dungatar. Her return is treated with mostly contempt and disbelief – she had apparently left because of an unpleasant incident and neither she nor her mothers are welcomed in the town. There are exceptions who make Tilly comfortable and lessen her loneliness, including Sargent Farrat, the town chief police officer, who loves fabrics and sewing and Ted McSwiney, the football team’s star player and charming loveable rouge. However soon things start looking up for Tilly as her expertise in fashion designing and dressmaking gets around and soon all the ladies of the town are thronging her home to get their version of the latest Dior/Channel gowns. However, on the night of the Ball, it becomes clear to Tilly that though the women accept her dressmaking skills, she will never be accepted as part of the community, leading to tragic events. Tilly now decides that things need to even out and scores need to be settled, before this part of her life is closed.
To begin with, there is a lovely Australian feel to the book – from the landscapes, to the gardens, to the seasons; the reader can see, breathe and live Australia. Beautiful descriptions highlighting the very best of Australian outback, in all their summer/spring glory!! Then there are dresses and designs – I had a fashion crash course. The author so lovingly details each dress made by Tilly copying a more famous brand, that I had to do Google Image searches, to see the actual, so lovely did they sound. I am all set to create a new wardrobe, only I do not have any place to wear such plethora of dresses and gowns. Tilly is a wonderful and warm character, quiet and hesitating, that it takes some time for the reader to figure her out, but once you do, you cannot help but like her. She had a difficult life, but she is not subservient and can give it back when needed. She is smart, talented and brave and takes life as it comes. Sargent Farrat is another absolutely loveable character – logical, kind and sensible; you have to like for his honesty and smile at him for the joy he feels in his secret passion for fabrics. Molly madness reflects more of obstinacy than true lunacy, but she is crazy character and her compassion shines through in the end! That’s where all the good things about this book end. The narrative is linear, jerky and at time abrupt. The taut tension builds and then falls flat – as reader, you are kind of left suspended in middle of a high jump, while the author figures out which direction the book will lead to; though as reader, by now, you have nose-dived into flatland. Events that happen are kind of clichéd and at times completely unnecessary and sometimes some incidents offer no explanation. For instance, why Tilly should all of sudden develop this ardor to come and nurse her mother, when for 20 years she gallivanting across the continent and never looked back at her even then mad mother! True, she suffers a loss that makes her come back to Dungatar, but do we really need a loss to take care of our invalid/aged parents? Is that not our moral responsibility – I mean why do you need to “realize” it??? It’s a fact, it’s love given back to a loving parent, who take care of you when you needed them. I do not get Ms. Ham explanation or her understanding of what is due of filial relationships! There are host of other characters in the books that populate the story including the Pratts, who run the grocery-haberdashery-butchers shop and their daughter Gertrude who dreams of marrying the town’s beau William Beaumont. William Beaumont has been to agricultural college and per the storyline planned to do a lot of things with his land, but I never read where or what or how he did it? His sister Mona Beaumont who is frustrated (I have no idea why), lives in her mother’s shadow and is sex obsessed. In fact sex obsession seems to run through all almost all characters of the town from being unfaithful to exhibitionism to what not. Therein lies my problem, I have no idea why so much sex and that to more it’s more darker aspect spins through the book – in fact that is the main thread that holds this motley crew together – everybody has a dark sexual secret!! Why? I understand the concept of hypocrisy; of being pretentious morally correct than you secret actions, but why do those secrets have to be around sex alone? There are all kinds of sins of behavior and all kinds of things that people hide – corruption, forgery etc. And more importantly, did the author really need guilty secrets to play off good versus bad? Your average bad person is usually a mean minded gossip monger, who suffices as an hypocritical archetypical villain, without this spin of sexual obsession. The whole beauty of such books lies in the variety of such cast and crew and their behavior. Ms. Ham took a butcher’s knife and stabbed it beyond recognition!
This book is tragedy not because of the plotline, but because it has so much promise and none of it came through!
P.S. I heard they are now making a movie, with Kate Winslet as Tilly Dunnage! Why?? Oh! Why???!!!