This is a book that has gotten quite a bit of hype lately after its recent film adaptation starring Kate Winslet. I must admit that I hadn’t heard of “The Dressmaker” by Rosalie Ham until I heard of the film, although it was published in 2000. I wanted to read the book before I saw the film, but it hadn’t really been on my radar until I found out that Rosalie Ham was coming to Muse, a Canberra bar/bookshop. Although due to double-booking I was a little late to her talk, I did manage to catch the end and get my book signed.
“The Dressmaker” is about a woman called Tilly who returns to her rural Australian home town Dungatar to look after her aging mother. After having been away for 20 years, it becomes clear that despite the sweltering weather, the people of Dungatar are icy cold towards Tilly. However, this doesn’t stop them from from hiring the talented dressmaker to make them clothes in the latest Parisian fashions. With few allies and a past shrouded in mystery, Tilly’s future in Dungatar is very uncertain.
I don’t think I quite got this book. Ham is an immersive writer and you can taste the hot dust of a rural Australian town. There is a huge ensemble cast and Ham does a great job of individualising these characters and weaving their stories together. However, there was something about the tone of this book that felt a little off to me. Sexual assault and violence are treated with a flippant, absurdist way that seemed to be inviting the audience to laugh. There were several times throughout the book where some sordid detail was revealed and although I could almost hear the laugh track, personally I was horrified. I get that it’s meant to be gothic, I get that there’s romance, I’m just not sure how the humorous attitude towards violent and sexual crimes fits into the picture as well.
I don’t like to gender books, it couldn’t escape my observation that there was a very particular demographic present at Rosalie Ham’s book signing: women. She’s a good writer, and clearly a very popular writer. While perhaps not the book for me, if you like dark romances with twisted humour and a big cast on a small stage, this might be the book for you.