Review: The Dressmaker – mischief and mayhem

‘The Dressmaker,’ a novel  by Rosalie Ham, was recommended to me by a writer who knows what she’s about. It is out on film at the moment starring Kate Winslet and it really doesn’t look like my thing. Set in Australia, the novel’s strapline reads ‘an unforgettable tale of love and hate and haute couture.’

I dislike sewing immensely: to me, it is a micro-product of our patriarchal history, keeping women bent over and myopic, fiddling with something in close vision, darning and mending and preventing them from looking out into the wide world. Of course, I also blame the sewing teacher at school who irritated and bullied me so much I stuck a pin through my finger and bled all over my bias binding in a deliberate (and successful) attempt to be thrown out of the class and sent to the much more sympathetic and stimulating Art teacher.

I was wrong about ‘The Dressmaker’ too. I am not particularly interested in romances and poor-girl-gets-a-hero stories, and the cover with Kate in fashionable glory with wide brimmed hat and gritty gaze suggests that the genre may be romance and the usual fare of girl struggles with prejudice and unfairness, then gets her man and all ends happily.

But not this novel!

I found in Rosalie Ham a kindred spirit; in fact, some of the literary devices and ideas I have used in my own novel appear very successfully in hers.

The setting is fascinating and real; I have never been to Australia but it’s scents and sights seep from the pages. Ham’s language is evocative and exciting.

At first, we are introduced to the locals and they are caricatures. I struggled with this a bit initially; my failing, not Rosalie Ham’s, as I was trying to accommodate and remember an outback town full of characters, many of them objectionable and obtuse.

However, I am so glad I read past the initial crowding of characters. The protagonist, Tilly Dunnage, has an interesting history, as does her mother, Mad Molly. No spoilers from me, as usual, you’ll find it much more exciting reading it for yourself.

The setting, style and characters are impressive. But what Rosalie Ham does best is a quality I really admire in a writer: she understands mischief and writes it intuitively. The characters she has created often  deserve a little playful derision and Ham excels here, whether it is Lesley’s toupée lying like a scrotum on the ground after he has fainted or Trudy’s fly-blown afterbirth on the posh carpet. Ham has a real sense of humour and she is capable of sharing the infectious belly chuckles with her reader.

But the book is not just a comedy, hence the strapline. The haute couture is Tilly’s talent and the townspeople hate her, apart from Teddy. Then the story weaves and lurches at a breakneck pace and the unexpected becomes the norm, with the good characters quickly gaining the reader’s admiration and the crazy ones becoming antagonists.

I like unpredictability in a novel and ‘The Dressmaker’ satisfies.Strong writing, fascinating characters, twists and turns in the story and an atmospheric and credible setting, it is a good read and defies the genre of romance to become a well-written tale of more complex human relationships. However, the sense of mischief sets it apart from others; I wonder how well the iconoclasm will transpose into the film? It has Hugo Weaving in it, so I can imagine it is effective and a fair interpretation.

I can imagine the film being entertaining and fast moving, but the novel is richly written and packed with fun. Read it first!

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