I didn’t think I’d enjoy this as much as I did. I thought I’d find it lukewarm at best but Ham doesn’t try to share any morals or life lessons, but rather impart an enjoyable story written in an unpretentious manner.
The plot itself requires a little suspension of disbelief: a haute couture dressmaker returns to the tiny repressed country town she was exiled from to make her peace. And at first glance, I thought it’d be like a ‘Cold Comfort Farm’ situation; the educated city girl returns to expose her home town to culture and class, where she herself will find love and learn that there’s no place like home, but not right after the universe solves all past wrongs in a tidy fashion and the town realises how Special and Unique she is.
But Ham takes all this and turns it on its head. It’s not a satire as such but there is humour. With a town full of eccentric character like a cross-dressing policeman and a nosy gossip in charge of the town’s post, it’s hard not to have a bit of a giggle throughout the novel. This isn’t a romantic comedy though and the matter-of-fact social cruelties inflicted by the people of Dungatar on outcasts are used by Ham to remind her audience that though her novel may not be tragic, it is still bittersweet.
Also there is a surprising gothic tone underlying the story that keeps it from being too saccharine. Despite lacking the horror element common in gothic fiction, the fact that Tilly believes she’s cursed to harm people around her keeps things interesting. The inclusion of revenge spanning across multiple generations, and the notion that Fate itself is not above using death as a means of righting wrongs gives it the gothic tone that it otherwise would not have had for a story set in a 1950s repressed Australian country town.
And I can’t finish this review without commenting on the paragraphs dedicated to describing the dresses that Tilly makes for her neighbours. I am now dying to see the movie just so that I can covet the fashion; I love 50s clothes! I thought by constantly veering between descriptions of sheep and high-end clothing would make the story feel quite jarring, like it would just feel like Ham is just indulging her desire to describe pretty clothes. But it actually served as an effective method of using the setting of a quiet rural town to highlight the hypocrisy of the people living in Dungatar:
A fat woman with unsightly hair wore a streamlined, waistless wool crepe, princess-cut frock with a standaway collar and Magyar sleeves, which hung like cold honey and flattered her fridge-like form. A small, pointy woman wore a soft pink suit, double-breasted and wide-collared with revers and purple trim, all of which softened her leather-like complexion. Next to her, leaning on a broom, a girl with a boyish figure wore a design she was sure had not yet even been invented. It was a fine black wool dress with a shallow boat-shaped neckline and short sleeves. The bodice bloused gently into a wide, black calfskin belt with a huge black buckle. The skirt was narrow and knee length! There was a blonde showing great panache in satin-velour pedal-pushers, a shopkeeper in a smart faille tunic suit, and a small, taut woman in silk capri pants and a very chic sleeveless paletot. The stranger went back to her room to smoke her cigarettes. She wondered how Paris had found its way to the dilapidated confines and neglected torsos of banal housewives in a rural province.
If I had to nitpick one thing, it would be that there wasn’t enough of Tilly’s interaction with the locals. I felt like Tilly was a bit passive in her interactions with the locals and it was only towards the end when she had well and truly hardened, after endless suffering, did she stand up and take control of her fate. Hamm provided a lot of backstory for the other characters which I enjoyed, but it did distract from Tilly, at times, she felt like a supporting character in her own story.
I think why this story works so well, is that Ham took an original idea and applied it to the basic principles of a successful story-telling. There is complexity, there is character development, there is romance and there is a fiery conclusion worthy of the injustice Tilly has suffered. I recommend everyone to read this. It’s one of the most unique stories I’ve read in years.
On Another Note
I was reading this at the Hobart Airport waiting for my flight home and I started chatting with the elderly man next to me about ‘The Dressmaker’ and our love for reading physical books instead of on a smartphone. I wish this was more common, I wouldn’t mind bonding more with strangers about books that we’ve read.