Rosalie Ham-The Dressmaker

Synopsis: A darkly satirical novel of love, revenge, and 1950s haute couture. After twenty years spent mastering the art of dressmaking at couture houses in Paris, Tilly Dunnage returns to the small Australian town she was banished from as a child. She decides to stay to care for her ailing mother and her exquisite dresses prove irresistible to the prim women of Dungatar. Through her fashion business, her friendship with Sergeant Farrat—the town’s only policeman, who harbors an unusual passion for fabrics—and a budding romance with Teddy, the local football star whose family is almost as reviled as hers, she finds a measure of grudging acceptance. As her dresses begin to arouse competition and envy in town, causing old resentments to surface, it becomes clear that Tilly’s mind is set on a darker design: exacting revenge on those who wronged her, in the most spectacular fashion.  (Adapted from Goodreads)

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Themes Explored: historical fiction, Australia, Australian fiction, haute couture, killer fashion, fashion, dressmaking, murder, memory, revenge, death, madness, insanity, romance, Australian culture, fire, sexuality, infidelity, coming of age, mother-son relationship, alcoholism, Jazz, The Blues.

Review: Imagine Tim Burton’s imagination crossed with a 1960s Doris Day film and you might come close to the enticing oddness of this novel. The Dressmaker is a Gothic-comedy novel written by the Australian author Rosalie Ham. Set in a satirical 1950s Australian country town, Dungatar, the narrative is divided into four sections, each named after a different fabric that symbolizes the events in the story: gingham, shantung, felt and brocade.

Long ago, in a small forgettable town, a terrible accident split society apart. A young girl finds her life irrevocably changed when she is bundled out of town in the back of a police car. Dungatar, Australia never changes. Everybody knows everyone else’s business and has for their entire lives, their parent lives, and so on. This little town exists alone, thirty miles away from the nearest doctor. The resident pharmacist doubles as the local, self-appointed sin assessor and uses his concoctions to dole out punishment for his neighbors’ sins. Everyone’s mail is steamed opened by the postmistress, who keeps anything that she fancies. The elite, high-class family barely keeps one step ahead of crippling debt, and everyone in town indulges in illicit sex.

Then a bus arrives and Miss Myrtle “Till” Dunnage returns home to care for her mother, “Mad” Molly.  Tilly arrives with her Singer sewing machine and decades of couture dressmaking experience— having studied at the emerging fashion houses of Balmain, Balenciaga, and Dior. Most of the townspeople welcome her back with stares, silence, and general ill will.

All around town are reminders of Tilly’s damaged childhood. The oppressive schoolhouse ruled by Miss Dimm; the Pratt’s dreadful department store; sinister Mr. Almanac’s chemist shop; and the downtown dump, presided over by the cheerful McSwiney clan, including the handsome eldest son, Teddy.

Once news breaks that Tilly knows fabrics, everyone wants a makeover. Ham does not disappoint in this regard — in fact, the makeovers occur several times, always accompanied by high drama and hysterics.

These makeovers form the best parts of the narrative. Ham has real gifts for infusing life into Tilly’s creations, you can almost see the ladies of the town parading around the dusty streets wearing Parisian high fashion. All the venues to showcase this finery comes in the form of dances, social club gatherings, weddings, funerals, births, and a tragic, baroque, and rather macabre production of Macbeth.

The revenge theme underlying the narrative proves a little problematic. Seeing the folks of Dungatar get their comeuppance provides a modicum of pleasure. Other than Tilly, Teddy, Molly, and the Sergeant, all the other characters exist as cardboard villains who show no remorse for their fiendish ways. Their punishment is pure camp, ingenious and specific to each person.  

Ham gives Tilly a bleak, oppressive past to justify her town wide vendetta. Keep in mind this book toes the line between Gothic and satire. All the characters are greatly exaggerated caricatures. Sometimes Ham goes a little too in depth with describing the sexual activities of the characters. The Dressmaker is not for everyone. If you enjoy movies like Best in Show, Intolerable Cruelty, Raising Arizona, America’s Sweethearts, and The Big Lebowski, there is a strong possibility you will like the dark humor of The Dressmaker.

The Dressmaker, Duffy and Snellgrove, 2000, ISBN: 9781875989706

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