June read – The dressmaker by Rosalie Ham

The dressmaker by Rosalie Ham is set on the flat Western plains of rural Australia in the 1950s. It sees a disgraced daughter of the town of Dungatar return to care for her mad mother, and to support herself with her Parisian dressmaking skills.

Small, isolated communities make fascinating studies -I’m thinking of amoeba under a microscope – and the town of Dungatar in this fantastic book, is no exception.  It is the exaggerated characteristics of the town folk, the fact that they are stereotyped to the point where they have become archetypes, that has led to The dressmaker being described as a Gothic tale. That and the big themes of love, betrayal, hate and revenge that slice through this story like bold splashes of colour across a canvas.

But it is not an unsubtle book – it is full of a certain dry humour that pokes into the unlikeliest of places: in Mad Molly’s verbal attacks on Tilly; in the unpleasant Mr Almanac, spine bent by age and illness until he can only look down at his own feet, being sent backwards and forwards across the street with a push; in Tilly being squired to the races in the most ravishing dress the town has ever seen by the simple minded McSwiney boy.

Most fascinating of all though, is the gradual unfolding of the truth of what happened in the past (rather than what is said to have happened) and the layers of current dramas that are built up until you can feel the novel humming with an accruing tension as it progresses – you know something wicked this way comes, but you can’t see what or how the axe will fall on them all. 

Rosalie Ham said in an interview that “suspicion, malice and prejudice are three of the things I find MOST annoying about humans but it’s rife among all of us.” In The dressmaker she serves up, not only a literary feast of these worst aspects of humanity in all their distressing details, but an appropriately Shakespearian revenge served ice cold.