Reviewed by Wendy Lipke
With her latest novel, Rosalie Ham is hoping to latch onto the success of her earlier novel, The Dressmaker, which was made into the acclaimed movie of the same name starring Kate Winslet. The cover of her new book states ‘She’s back!’ in dark blue on the bright yellow cover. This is followed by the words ‘Rosalie Ham’s beloved dressmaker, cult classic, number one bestseller, box office sensation…’. However, the cover on the novel I read is different from the one on the novel advertised on many of the web pages.
There is no disputing the success of the movie, but these books have a very large cast of characters most of which you would never find in any other novel.
The Dressmaker’s Secret is a book about bogans. They are the unlovely, the mis-shaped, the bitter and vindictive and others who are simply different from the norm. These include Tilly’s step-mother who was ‘tremulous, like a small jelly mould, not quite set…(and) the other one with the hole in her face (who) was withered and skinny, turtle-headed and toothless’ (70). There was Gertrude the Terrible who tyrannised the locals (72) and Mr and Mrs Short who had a very unfortunate accident. ‘That night when Mr Short put his obese wife to bed and climbed in beside her, his side of the bed collapsed and his wife rolled, landing face first, on top of her small husband, trapping him’ (135).
Even the names given to the characters and to landmarks are most unusual. We have Reginald Blood the butcher, Scotty Pullit, Fred Bundle and Mrs Almanac. First names of these characters include Horatio, Beula, Esmeralda and Felicity Joy. These, no doubt, as well as introducing humour were an attempt to link them to the time in which this novel is set. This was the year of the King’s death and the excitement of the coronation of Elizabeth and although Australia was a long way from England there was still a strong link to the motherland.
Much of the action occurs in Melbourne and the country town of Dungatar, with its Fart Hill and Windswept Crest. Tilly had left the town in flames when she fled. Three years on they have still not rebuilt. Tilly refers to this place as ‘a feted cauldron of bubbling venom’ (329).
Although Tilly, the dressmaker, links everything together, there are several storylines in this novel and, with the huge cast, the jump from one to another throughout the novel is sometimes jarring or disorienting. There are the remaining residents of Dungatar and how they have been living since their town burned down. They are perpetually preparing to put on a Shakespearian play and often wander around in their costumes. There is also the Salon in Melbourne where Tilly has managed to find work, with petty jealousies, exploitation and, competition for custom. Into this mix is the storyline involving the Convent and the Welfare Department with their harassment and bullying and there is the story around the Hippocampus Club – as in seahorse not the brain (26).
Jealousy and one-upmanship appear to drive most of the characters. For me, I felt most of them were way over the top in the way they dressed and acted.
This is a book about a dressmaker and so there is much description about fashion. Many readers who are unfamiliar with this world will no doubt just gloss over the many descriptions and similes. However, by doing this they would miss some of the humour. Tilly even thinks of herself in dressmaking terms. ‘I am a zipper – a clever functional accoutrement with infinite potential but only if given the right circumstance’ (4) and Mrs Flock, Salon Mystique’s boss, was once described by one of her workers as ‘a giant bodkin wearing a sewing machine cover’ (3) because of her dress style to cover her painfully thin body. I did enjoy the Greek Legends incorporated in this story.
Much of the story relies on information from Rosalie Ham’s other novel, The Dressmaker, so there are snippets in this latest book to help the reader understand why certain things are happening. Chapter 3, in particular, provides much of this information. My encounter with The Dressmaker was through watching the movie and, in this format, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Even though the characters still appeared extreme, one could more easily accept the humour of it. However, in the novel form, I did not enjoy the storyline quite as much, as some of the characters began to frustrate me.
However, though Tilly is clearly a flawed character, the reader is positioned to admire her for her determination to make a better life for herself despite her earlier experiences. The reader goes on the journey with her as she battles all the setbacks thrown at her. She is typical of what many people must endure especially when confronted by bureaucracy.
As the book I read was an uncorrected bound proof, it was not surprising that there would be editorial problems throughout the book. Several that I remember were found on pages 5, 25, 47, and 85. No doubt this book will be enjoyed by those who were first introduced to Tilly Dunnage in the cult classic The Dressmaker.
By Rosalie Ham