Book Review: The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham

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I’d never heard of this book until it was made into a movie but it’s so often the case these days. I haven’t seen the movie, which is the way I like it, so I can do a review rather than a comparison. It’s surprising that I hadn’t heard of it, though, because it was written by my father’s best friend’s daughter’s husband’s aunt. Less than seven degrees of separation and yet…

Perhaps the reason I hadn’t heard of it was because, despite the hype, as a story it’s really nothing exceptional. Pleasant, yes. Unregretted, yes. Exceptional, no.

The Dressmaker is the story of Tilly Dunnage’s return to Dungatar, the small country Australian town where she spent the first of her formative years before being exiled at a young age. In the years since then, Tilly has become an expert dressmaker and despite the fact that most of the townspeople hate her for historical reasons, they can’t resist her dresses.

The portrayal of Dungatar is a caricature but, at the same time, anyone who has ever lived in a small country Australian town will realise Rosalie Ham hasn’t had to reach too far from reality. Full of class divides, unhappy marriages, affairs, sexual assaults, domestic violence, lesbians, a cross-dresser, drugs, mental health issues, child deaths and pasts that infiltrate the present, turmoil is never far from the surface.

The romance between Tilly and Ted McSwiney, a local man from a dirt poor family, tolerated in the town only because he is a football champion, felt forced. He persists and persists and persists and eventually Tilly gives in, despite any sign of true feelings, which is hardly the most romantic of relationships.

The only character I genuinely enjoyed reading about was Sergeant Farrat, the cross-dresser. Even though Tilly was making marvellous dresses for the women of Dungatar, the police officer was the only person in the book who genuinely enjoyed his outfits, rather than what the outfits could achieve (Tilly included). The scene in which he stands behind the police counter taking a complaint from a concerned citizen while ballet slippers are laced right up his calves is exquisite.

The cover says this book is a comedy (a bittersweet comedy but a comedy nonetheless) but there are no laugh out loud, chesty chuckle or even mildly amusing moments. So much about these people and their stories is so thoroughly disturbing that it reminded me a great deal of how glad I was to leave the small town I lived in as a child.

The book isn’t edited particularly well, which if you read a lot of my book reviews you will know is a bugbear of mine. It does well to evoke a particular era and a particular location but the story is just a tad too farcical for me.

I don’t lament the time I spent reading this book but it hasn’t made me want to read any of Rosalie Ham’s other books. When I compare her to Liane Moriarty, who does this genre so well (albeit set in a different time), she comes up wanting, at least based on this effort.

Time to watch the movie now. Maybe it will be what the book should have been.

3 stars

*First published on Goodreads 10 July 2016

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