Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham

The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham.
Griffin Press, 2000.
An Australian gothic novel of love, hate and haute couture.
Set against the backdrop of Australian country town,
Dungatar, The Dressmaker centres around the story of Myrtle (‘Tilly’) Dunnage, who has returned to her childhood home to care for her mad mother.

Tilly is introduced as svelte and stylish, a competent traveller having worked in the fashion industry throughout Europe. It is eluded that she speaks several European languages, as well as being extremely good looking. Yet Ham, whose story is almost entirely character based, never once allows Tilly to become too perfect nor too much of a cliché. Tilly’s bitter past - which remains largely a secret until the completion of the novel, as well the illusions to her witch-like qualities, during which the book almost borders on super natural – blemishes the image of a perfect protagonist.

When Tilly does return to Dungatar, Ham introduces the readers to an array of incredible characters. The local policeman is a cross dresser. Evan Pettyman, the local councillor, is abusing his wife. Faith O’Brien, loving wife of Hamish, is having an affair with Reginald Blood, the butcher. Tilly’s own mother borders on insane. The local pub is full of an array of colourful characters, many whose stories stay with you longer than the plot of the book – which is virtually non-existence during the first half of the story.

Yet it is precisely Ham’s focus on these brilliant characters that saves the plot. Often she uses incredibly confronting images to create the image of a country town that is almost poisonous in its existence. Sexual abuse, character deaths and the characters own bizarre personal lives create the world of a Dungatar in such a way that led the Sydney Morning Herald to title it a ‘feral SeaChange’.

The Dressmaker centres on Tilly’s affect on the town, both in creating glamorous outfits for the women of Dungatar and in her personal affect on many of the characters, most especially Teddy McSwinney – a love interest that follows a tired road. The plot begins after the introduction of the major characters, yet stems into many sub-plots, each centring on each of the town folk.

Ham’s eye for the comedic as well as the copious caricatures of small town characters gives the book its gothic quality. Her attention to detail is pronounced and her craft of words creates the lasting image of a country town and it's colourful residents - one that will stay with you far longer than the ending.


redcap said...

Ooh, Australian gothic! I love gothic.

I used to find silly or too-appropriate character names a bit distracting, but I've come to appreciate them lately. It's so Dickensian. It sounds as though the "dung" in the town's name is quite telling.

Your review makes me think of Carmel Bird's The Bluebird Cafe and Janette Turner Hospital's Oyster - they're both character-driven and set in oppressive small towns with a lot of secrets to hide. Maybe The Child's Book of True Crime, too, but I didn't like that as much as the others.

Rosanna said...

Redcap - it is a spooky world. Carmel Bird taught me King Lear! The 'dung' is certainly very telling. As is names like 'Beula Harridien' ("awful woman") and 'Evan Pettyman'.

Cliche, but oh-so-perfect.

Rosanna said...

*As are. Gah. Lazy Sunday!

redcap said...

Have you read any of Carmel's books? I read The Bluebird Cafe at uni and even though it was a bit unsatisfying, I loved it. When I tried to read Cape Grimm last year, though, I couldn't stand it. I think I got about 40 pages in before I tossed it aside. It wasn't that her style had changed, it was that I had. There were too many damned adjectives. The place was awash with the things! (And as the wonderful Mark Twain said, "If you see an adjective, kill it!") The repetition was driving me spare, too. I still love the idea of her books and the ideas of fairy tale, myth and legend she brings to them, but I can't read them any more.

Rosanna said...

I didn't like Cape Grimm AT ALL. I know exactly how you feel! Carmel Bird was a wonderful Literature teacher during my VCE years, and I found her to talk in the same way she writes - full of expression and colour, if a little over the top. I have never read The Bluebird Cafe, but I will look into it.

She used to tell me off for my dismal readings of Cordelia, from Lear. I never wanted to play his daughter but somehow got roped in to it. I think it scarred me for life.

Rosanna said...

PS: That Mark Twain quote is wonderful! I think I ought to print it off, and keep it on my desk for future reference.

Ann O'Dyne said...

Never heard of it or her!

Now you've made me want to read it.

I love the DUNGatar naming theme.

and what makes you think a clinically insane mother is 'incredible' ?

There's lots of them.
Believe me.

PS: if you liked this book you will enjoy the film titled Road To Nhill - about the undercurrents of a small town. quite old now but hysterically funny.(search at will give you cast and details)

Rosanna said...

The sad thing is... I've been to Nhill! I will have to see it - thanks for the heads up.

Oh, she's very batty. Not even remotely sane - but Rosalie Ham does such a brilliant job of making her believably in the same context, an almost child-like voice that thinks everyone is a witch.

The way Rosalie Ham describes her - it's just incredible, it will make you laugh out loud.

/ end gushing.

Jef + Stef said...

Hi fans of Rosalie Ham, she now has a website you can check out.

Loretta Salt said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Loretta Salt said...

Ann and Rosanna- funny coincidence- The wonderful film 'Road to Nhill' was produced by Sue Maslin- same producer of the up-coming screen adaptation of The Dressmaker- starring Judy Davis and Kate Winslett.... She must have a good eye for a great story!