Tuesday, February 15, 2005

The Dressmaker

The Dressmaker

By Rosalie Ham

The novel ‘The dressmaker’ is subtitled: ‘An Australian gothic novel of love, hate and haute couture’. The basic plot of the book is that a young woman named Tilly who grew up in the town of the setting, Dungatar, after suffering the loss of her baby returns after a long (forced) absence to help her old mother. Weaved in with this plot is a very unsatisfactory series of glimpses into the lives of the townsfolk. Tilly and her mother Mad Molly are really the only ones with fully developed character arcs. This may be because one of the major themes of the book is outcasts. Tilly and Molly are outcasts and the only other characters to get more than a page’s mention are the Beaumonts (the old money family who live out side the town) and the cross-dressing policeman Sergeant Horatio Farrat. In creating this stark contrast it seems that Ham does not have any feeling for the townsfolk. She paints them as gimmicks- the lesbians, the feeble old man, the adulteress etc. These people are not real characters to Ham or us. They’re products of Rosalie’s distorted imagination of the immense hypocrisy of her own 1950’s small town in the Riverina. This does not endear the book to us at all. In fact, coupled with the extreme graphic descriptions and acts that are the hallmarks of the gothic genre, it serves to distance us from characters that are the subject of half the book. One wonders what Rosalie Ham’s original story was like before she expanded it.

The subtitle does indeed convey much of the plot. The love is the love of families and/or the lack of love, and also the romantic and not so romantic love of the novel’s three central couples: Lesley and Mona, William and Gertrude and Tilly and Teddy. These couples all have their problems throughout the book- Lesley’s erectile dysfunction, William and Gertrude’s love so quickly lost, and Teddy’s accident. The hate of the subtitle is the hate of the townspeople towards Molly and Tilly, and Ham’s obvious hatred of them back. The ‘Haute Couture’ could be, depending on your knowledge of fabrics and dresses, the most boring thing about this book or the most interesting. Ham’s love and passion is quite obvious in the overlong, self indulgent passages about the dresses.

It seems the major issue in The Dressmaker is the hypocrisy of the 1950’s. In fact the novel does not really go much further than this. There are, of course, secondary issues involving morality and sexual eccentricities and abuse. The intended meaning of this book seems to be to provide a serious yet light hearted account of a self determined young woman’s fight against the prejudices of a small town in the fifties. So of course it means that this book is best suited to be read by older women who harbour feminist leanings and bitterness about the stifling atmosphere of the fifties. The serious nature of the book has much to do with the harsh depictions of the struggles of women in the novel from the tragic tale of Molly to the very disturbing tale of Marigold Pettyman. This book, when analysed from a Freudian point of view, would seem to reveal Ham’s deep hatred of men, particularly her father. And so injecting scenes of craziness through the harsh character depictions into an essentially light hearted novel is entirely logical. I found this book to be an enjoyable if not a particularly well written or deep novel. Some of the writing did interest me but overall the plot structure and two dimensional portrayals of the characters belie a substandard amateurish first novel from my fellow Brunswickian Rosalie Ham.

UPDATE: Please feel very welcome to leave a comment about this review.

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