Published in 2000, my book club’s most recent choice has achieved a wide audience – well, a wider audience – through its recreation as a film of the same name (2015). It stars Kate Winslet and Liam Hemsworth, and the cast and film won five awards at the 2015 AACTAs: Best Lead Actress (Kate Winslet), Best Supporting Actress (Judy Davis), Best Supporting Actor (Hugo Weaving), Best Costumes (Marion Boyce and Margot Wilson) and the People’s Choice Award for Favourite Australian Film. But the book began life as a project for a creative writing class, and it shows. You can just imagine them workshopping the blurb: ‘an Australian gothic novel of love, hate and haute couture’. It’s true, though, that I saw the film before I read the book; this inevitably changed the way I read it.
Tilly Dunnage arrives back in her small home town of Dungatar with a suitcase and a sewing machine, and incredible skills as a dressmaker (and yes, I think I mean incredible, but that’s maybe because I don’t have any skills at all in the area myself). She has returned to care for her mother who lives in squalid seclusion in a house at the top of the only hill in town. We learn that Tilly was banished from Dungatar after being involved, in some initially unspecified way, in the death of another child; she has in the meantime learnt dressmaking in the leading European design houses. The residents of the town are initially almost uniformly hostile. The two main exceptions are the town’s only policeman, Sergeant Farrat, who himself loves making outrageous outfits to wear in the privacy of his house, and Teddy McSwiney, who comes from a family of outcasts himself, but has won popularity as the local football team’s star full forward. He finds Tilly the most beautiful woman he has ever seen. Gradually the women of the town warm to Tilly when they find she can make clothes that make them look attractive and stylish, and gradually Tilly warms to Teddy. But then tragedy strikes. Can anything be saved from the ruins? Quick answer: no.
I bet that when they were workshopping that blurb, they thought about including ‘revenge’ and ‘magic realism’ in the list. And I’m not sure why ‘gothic’ made the cut, because it’s not a horror story, though of course horrible things happen. But it is a tale of revenge, initially satisfying, but then rather over the top. I’m not sure if revenge was always what Tilly intended; I didn’t get that impression, though others have suggested it. And perhaps the magic realism is rather more cinematic than inherent in the story, though Sergeant Farrat certainly defies ordinary credibility. The town’s entry into the eisteddfod is pretty surreal too.
Tilly’s story is the main one, but there are a number of sub plots involving the town residents. This is one of the areas that sounds to me a bit like a creative writing class exercise. Have lots of characters and tell us something interesting about them all. There were so many I had to keep going back to work out which was which, whose story belonged to whom. Most of these sub plots show people in a poor light that is sometimes funny, but often just rather nasty and rather two dimensional. One of the sub plots is actually part of Tilly’s story; it’s just a bit hard to pick it out from amongst all the others – though maybe this is intentional to add an element of mystery. The way the relationship between Tilly and her mother Molly develops doesn’t ring true to me either; I thought it was handled better in the film. (The overall plot was sharpened up a bit in the film. The beginning of the book drags a bit.)
So what of the other tag words in the blurb? Australian the book certainly is; the landscape is beautifully evoked, and the dialogue has an Aussie ring to it. The small town pettiness could probably be found anywhere, but seems to take on a particularly Australian character. And the haute couture is interesting for those with an interest in such things – whether, for example, Tilly used ‘Paris stitch for the lace trim … when she knew she should have used whip stitch.’ I’m assured by those who are interested that the haute couture is the highlight of the book. But is it enough to hang the story on? It’s perfectly legitimate to have an exotic or highly specialised craft that is central to the story, but too often it is clearly a device that doesn’t sit quite comfortably – think The Glassblower of Murano, by Marina Fiorato, reviewed here, or A Cup of Light, by Nicole Mones, reviewed here. There is only one point at which the author poses the question of the human value of Tilly’s dressmaking. Teddy asks Tilly why she makes clothes for the nasty women of the town; she replied it’s what she does. ‘They’ve grown airs, they think they’re classy,’ says her mother. ‘You’re not doing them any good.’ But Molly is painted as contrary by nature (or illness and neglect), and so this can’t really be taken as the author’s view. Indeed Tilly replies ‘There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’ I was left completely unsure whether Tilly is from the beginning using her dressmaking skills to build the women up only to tear them down, whether she uses them to get the town to accept her, or whether at least initially she just likes dressmaking. Certainly her revenge is ultimately complete. But is the haute couture part of it? Or does it lead the town to destroy itself?