I first read The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham about 5 years ago, when my daughter studied it for English literature. It was an intriguing story and I was very excited to discover recently that it was to be released as a film. I decided to reread it – a luxury that we don’t often allow ourselves because there always seems to be too many books on the “to read” list – and I am so glad that I did! There were many details that I couldn’t recall, and this time I was able to truly appreciate the book for all its hilariousness and devastation.
The story is about Tilly, a seamstress, who has been working in Europe, and who returns home to a small Australian country town to look after her elderly mother. The various occupants of the town become known to the reader as Tilly settles back into life looking after her mother, and it appears that they have slightly strained relationship with her. Tilly begins to offer her dressmaking services to the town women and over time we gradually learn the story of who Tilly is, the tragic incident of why she had to leave her home, and the town people’s view of Tilly and her mother.
As we get to know more of the story of each of the town people, we discover why they choose to use Tilly and her mother as scapegoats for their own short comings and disappointments in life. However, in the end it is Tilly who has her revenge and it is strangely satisfying.
The style of writing in this novel is very visual, particularly with the descriptions of Tilly’s fabrics and dressmaking accomplishments. It is a wonderful story, with larger than life characters, and it is going to make a gorgeous film.
This is the second book that I am reviewing for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2015. The Strays is a novel set in Australia in the 1930s about a community of artists. The story is told through the eyes of a young girl, Lily, who becomes friends with Eva, one of three daughters of the artist who establishes the group. Lily is the only child of conservative parents, who would have been quite typical of the time, so the differences between the two families is a complete novelty for her and she spends more and more time at Eva’s home.
The story follows the dynamics of Eva’s family and the evolution of the community of artists who are invited to live with Eva’s family. Through Lily’s eyes we see that the adults are quite self-centred about their own lives and their artistic pursuits, and small daily occurrences highlight the way that the children’s lives are neglected. As Lily and Eva, and the other two sisters grow older, it becomes quite obvious that the chaos and neglect of the parents will result in serious consequences.
This is a fascinating and uncomfortable story to read. As a parent, it is hard to believe that people such as Eva’s parents would be so unconcerned about their own children. Similarly, Lily’s parents also appear to not have a good understanding about their daughter. However, the story does give a very realistic depiction of the conflict that creative people must experience trying to fulfill their desire to make their art and also be responsible for young children.
Although this book is fiction, it is the perfect read for anyone who has enjoyed any of the various biographies about Sunday and John Reed, or any other artists who were part of the Australian Heide group, which was also formed in the 1930s.