Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Australian

The Dressmaker – Rosalie Ham

I’ve got to be honest: The List doesn’t feature as many Australian authors as I’d like. If you have a favourite, please do let me know so I can put it on The Next List! In the meantime, I’ve picked up The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham.

Believe it or not, The Dressmaker is actually Ham’s debut novel – and yet it’s sold over 100,000 copies since publication in 2000, and it was adapted into a major motion picture (starring Kate Winslet!) in 2015. What’s more, Ham has said that she wrote The Dressmaker by “accident”: it’s the product of participating in an RMIT creative writing course that she had never actually intended to join. She just showed up and started spitting fire, inspired by her mother’s life as a dressmaker in a small country town. Lifelong unpublished struggling writers everywhere are eating their hearts out…

The Dressmaker is set in a (fictional) Australian country town in the 1950s, so everyone has names like “Gertrude” and “Muriel”. The protagonist (Myrtle “Tilly” Dunnage) returns to her hometown to take care of her ailing mother – who is more than a little cracked, it must be said. The locals shun her, but Tilly finds one friend in the local cross-dressing cop (of course!). He’s the one who spots her talent for dressmaking. She also has a bit of a flirt now and then with a poor bloke who lives in a caravan up the road.

It takes Ham a couple hundred pages (full of veiled references and allusions) to reveal Tilly’s “dark secret”: the locals blame her for the death of a boy who was bullying her when they were children. That’s pretty heavy, I suppose, but then Ham goes and kills off Tilly’s love interest in the same breath, so it’s a fair wallop for the reader. What’s more, he has the most ridiculous death ever – he jumps into a silo (of all things), believing it to be filled with wheat, when it is actually filled with sorghum. The sorghum can’t support his weight, he sinks and suffocates. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: men are stupid.


Anyway, this second death really sets the locals off, and Tilly is forced to do dressmaking work for people from neighbouring towns. They’re the only ones who don’t care about her small-town scandal(s), and they actually pay her on time, which is very nice of them. This goes on until the community decides to put on a play, and they come to Tilly – hats in hands – asking her to make their costumes. She agrees to do so on the condition that they pay her in full, up-front (fair enough). They pay her using the funds they had saved to insure all the town buildings. Can you see where this is going?

It’s probably a darker ending than you’re imagining (spoiler alert, etc. etc.): Tilly makes the costumes, waits until the whole town has left to perform the play in the next town over… then she burns the whole damn place to the ground. Every single building. All personal effects – even the dresses belonging to her friend the cross-dressing cop – up in flames. Whoosh! The end.

It’s pretty much what we’ve all dreamed of doing (“I’ll show them! I’ll come back when I’m rich and famous, I’ll have my revenge!”), only none of us are crazy enough to actually do it. The Sydney Morning Herald called it “a feral version of Sea Change”, which is pretty much spot on. Despite the dark ending, there are quite a few laugh out loud moments. The humour is deeply Australian, though, so I’m not sure how it would translate for an international audience.




Now, when you’re reading The Dressmaker, you can skip over a lot of the seamstress and fashion lingo, if you want. You won’t miss anything as long as you don’t care about being able to picture all her outfits with 100% accuracy. I didn’t bother looking any of it up, and I’m pretty sure I still got the gist. There are a lot of really obvious sewing and clothing similes (“the fog resting around the veranda moved like the frills on a skirt”), but for those an intimate knowledge of dressmaking isn’t required.

Side note: Ham starts to run out of those metaphors and similes about half way through, and has to start using clumsy imagery like this:

“… his toupee had washed off and lay like a discarded scrotum on the grass by his bald head…”

(This was, without parallel, my favourite line from the entire book.)

I took the liberty of watching the film trailer after I’d finished the book. Judging by that alone, the film is a lot more upbeat, and the Tilly character is much more expressive and likeable. Almost every review I’ve read of The Dressmaker says the same thing. So, although it was nice to read a homegrown book for once, I’d probably recommend you give it a pass and check out the movie instead.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Dressmaker:

  • “An absolute steaming pile of rubbish. The author lives up to her surname as she hams it up for the novel. There is a multitude of characters that I didn’t connect with or care about, it might translate well to the big screen but don’t let that tempt you into reading this.” – James Motgomery
  • “I suppose this book is supposed to be humorous, but I found it disgusting. After reading about ninety pages, I was sick of the lurid vignettes of perverts, so I stopped reading. I had expected a story about a young woman who earns her living with her Singer sewing machine. Perhaps that comes further along than I managed to read.” – Linda Appleton
  • “This has to be some kind of satire on life as the characters were totally unbelievable. I give this no stars and think it should be tossed in a fire. Since I have to Star rate it I give it a negative 1.” – Psyched!
  • “No not my type of book. Kept waiting for something nice to happen. Never did.” – diane bradley

 

My Brilliant Career – Miles Franklin

I chose a considerably shorter and more recent local novel for my fourth Keeping Up With The Penguins read (I was gun-shy after the mammoth undertaking that was Vanity Fair). I was sure that My Brilliant Career would be knocked on the head far more easily, and I was right (as always).

Published in 1901, My Brilliant Career was written mostly for the enjoyment of Franklin’s friends – until she took a punt and sent it to Aussie literary giant Henry Lawson. He took such a fancy to the story that he added his own preface and forwarded it on to his publishers. That preface itself is notable in that he famously refused to comment on the “girlishly emotional” parts of the book – I mean, I think the story would have been hella boring without them, but I would think that, being an emotional girl and all… Anyway, Franklin ultimately withdrew it from publication until after her death. Apparently it bore just a little too much resemblance to her real life, and the ignorant bush peasants took offense to being described as such (can’t imagine why).

So, a 16-year-old girl living in the bush writes a story about a 16-year-old girl and the trials and tribulations of living in the bush: shocker. The opening chapters could be summarised as “I have no time for romance, and this book is all about me, so strap in, fuckers!”. Franklin captures the mind of a teenaged girl (Sybylla) perfectly, but that’s really no significant achievement, seeing as she was one at the time of writing.




Teenaged me would have hated this book. I would have found it condescending, and rolled my eyes at the well-meaning adult who handed it over saying they thought it would give me “perspective”. The thing is, angsty teenagers will automatically reject any intrusion on their belief that they are uniquely misunderstood little snowflakes, and Franklin’s book demonstrates pretty clearly that angsty teenagers are all the same and haven’t changed much over the last 100+ years. My Brilliant Career is full of dramatic hand-wringing and tear-soaked pillows and teenage strops. I’m actually kind of surprised I never had to read it in school; it seems right up the alley of an English teacher trying to provide “relatable content” on “teen issues” (à la The Breakfast Club, which we watched approximately four hundred and seventy two times).

Even though My Brilliant Career is determinedly not romantic, there’s a lot of flirting and teenage girl wish-fulfillment. Beecham, the primary love interest, is nice enough to be flattering without being creepy or boring, he doesn’t put up with Sybylla’s shit (but in a flirtatious way, not a mean way), he’s persistent and charming despite falling on hard times, and he wants to marry her even though she’s ugly. Can you imagine? There are no truly dirty bits, but plenty of impassioned exchanges and a random BDSM scene where Sybylla goes all weak in the knees over bruises and horse whips. Never fear, there’s no sentimentality in the ending at all: Sybylla ultimately chooses a “brilliant career” over marriage, and ends up with neither. Franklin reportedly suggested the title as “My Brilliant(?) Career”, which is laughably more apt, but the publishers vetoed it.

“At the time of my departure for Caddagat my father had been negotiating with beer regarding the sale of his manhood; on returning I found that he had completed the bargain, and held a stamped receipt in his miserable appearance and demeanour.”

– Sybylla, My Brilliant Career (oh, snap!)


The main highlights of My Brilliant Career are the language and Franklin’s turn of phrase, which often made me think of my grandmother (makes sense, given the shared time period and geography). On the whole, though, I found writing this review a little tricky, as I didn’t develop a strong feeling about the book one way or another. It’s okay. I probably won’t read it again, but I wouldn’t tell anyone else that they shouldn’t bother. Just avoid giving it to your 16-year-old daughter: she’ll hate you for it and go back to looking at memes on Tumblr.

My favourite Amazon reviews of My Brilliant Career:

  • “… I understand that at 16 we are all fairly self-absorbed although hopefully not quite so nasty. Nevertheless, while I can appreciate the beautiful writing I really got to the point where I was waiting for someone to take Sybylla over their knee and give her a corporal lesson in manners…” – Sharon Wilfong

 

Save

Save

Save

Save