Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Gothic (page 2 of 3)

Her Body And Other Parties – Carmen Maria Machado

I first encountered Carmen Maria Machado through the Sydney Writers’ Festival podcast (specifically through her lecture – which seems to have mysteriously disappeared from the internet, otherwise I’d link to it directly – about Law & Order: SVU). I’d not encountered her work before, which wasn’t entirely surprising. She didn’t have a particularly long publishing history at that time, just one short story collection: Her Body And Other Parties. Now, it’s truly phenomenal that a book of short stories from a debut author received enough attention to earn her an invite to speak at a festival half-way around the world, but I think it’s more than Machado’s brilliant writing craft that got her to that point. She is completely beguiling, scarily smart, and almost-embarrassingly frank. This short story collection is like nothing I’ve ever read before.

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Her Body And Other Parties is a collection of eight short stories, all wildly different. Machado ricochets from magical realism to horror to science fiction to comedy to fantasy to epistolary, so fast that the genres and tropes are pureed together into a very delicious pulp. As much as the stories vary, they make sense next to each other, forming a complete and cohesive collection that somehow leaves you (selfishly) wanting more. The stories aren’t linked by character or plot or even style, but they all address similar themes: sex, death, queerness, vulnerability, women, and their bodies (as the title might suggest).

The first story of the collection is possibly Machado’s best-known work: The Husband Stitch. It’s a reimagination of an old and oft-retold spooky story (borrowed from a French folktale of unknown origin) The Green Ribbon. You know the one, the woman who marries a man but won’t tell him why she always wears a green ribbon around her neck, until she finally lets him remove it and her head falls off? The thrust of Machado’s version is much the same: basically, we screw women over by denying them self-determination. It’s one heck of an opener, and it really sets the tone for the rest of Her Body And Other Parties. Even the new title is revealing in its gruesomeness (steel yourselves): the “husband stitch” is a euphemism for doctors using more sutures than necessary to repair a woman’s perineum after childbirth, purportedly to make the vaginal opening smaller and sexual penetration more “pleasurable” for her male partner. (Excuse me, I have to go and vomit.)



Another one of the stories that received a lot of attention was Especially Heinous (and it’s probably the reason she was invited to give that lecture at the Sydney Writers’ Festival to begin with). Essentially, it’s a novella-length story told through imagined plot summaries of a parallel-universe series of Law & Order: SVU. It sounds bizarre, and it is. Machado had the idea after she streamed endless seasons of the show while recovering from surgery, which is what lends Especially Heinous its surreal, feverish quality. Plus, it’s a very obvious but still very poignant critique of our culture’s obsession with violence that victimises women. To call it “twisted literary fan fiction” would be underselling it, but it’s a really hard premise to describe, so give me a break!

“VULNERABLE”: For three days in a row, there is not a single victim in the entire precinct. No rapes. No murders. No rape-murders. No kidnappings. No child pornography made, bought, or sold. No molestations. No sexual assaults. No sexual harassments. No forced prostitution. No human trafficking. No subway gropings. No incest. No indecent exposures. No stalking. Not even an unwanted dirty phone call. Then, in the gloaming of a Wednesday, a man wolf-whistles at a woman on her way to an AA meeting. The whole city releases its long-held breath, and everything returns to normal.

Especially heinous, her body and other parties (P. 80)

My personal favourite of the collection (though, of course, they’re all worth reading) is Inventory. What looks like a simple list of a woman’s lovers turns into an incredible work of speculative fiction, set in a dystopian world where a virus is killing off the population in swathes. You might think I’ve spoiled it for you now, but I swear I haven’t: it would take a lot more than a single review on a book blog to ruin all of the surprises that Machado has in store for you.





It should be fairly obvious by now, but just in case it isn’t: the stories in Her Body And Other Parties are “dirty”. Like, would-make-you-blush-if-you-read-them-out-loud-to-your-mother “dirty”. The main characters of The Husband Stitch fuck, in graphic detail, twice within the first five pages. Machado is not bashful or coy about sex – my kind of girl! I only mention it because I know that’s not for everyone, but I still want to vouch for the book (even if “smut” isn’t your “thing”). The sex isn’t pointless titillating garbage, it’s integral to the story (as it is to life), and I think even the pearl-clutchers among us will at least admire Machado’s erotic fearlessness.

Also needless to say: Her Body And Other Parties went on to win a lot of awards. A lot. Like, I got exhausted trying to collate them into a list. Every professional review I read was glowing, at minimum (I think they call that “critical acclaim”). Plus, more importantly, in my view, it’s achieved cult status – this is a book that will be passed from youth to youth, on university campuses and at seedy bars and over cheap coffees, for years to come. Machado is the real deal, folks, and I’m going to be overjoyed to be able to say “I remember reading her very first book” late in her long, long career. She’s already on her way, having released a breathtaking memoir – In The Dream House – which has revolutionised the genre and already cemented itself a place in the queer literary canon. Do I recommend Her Body And Other Parties? Abso-fucking-lutely.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Her Body And Other Parties:

  • “fun stories. different. freedom fighter stuff.” – Eddie
  • “that’s all. read it.” – G.S.
  • “Not what I expected, but definitely a well-written jaunt into lesbian-fueled surrealism.” – A Long Walk In The Woods
  • “Hot trash” – Mark Fulghum
  • “I don’t like the book, but it came in great condition and exactly as described.” – Maddie


Frankenstein – Mary Shelley

Have you ever been so bored of the men at a party that you create an entirely new genre of literature? Did you then follow that up by writing one of the most enduring monster stories of all time? That’s the potted version of Mary Shelley’s life, but that’s what happened, and we should all be worshipping at her feet. I’ll talk more about her fascinating (and terribly tragic) life in a minute, but for now let’s take a look at her best-known work: Frankenstein, the story of a young scientist and an unorthodox experiment that went horribly wrong.

The original full title was “Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus”, though most modern editions (including mine, see above) exclude that subtitle, which is a shame because it tells us a lot about the story. A quick Greek mythology lesson: Prometheus created mankind on Zeus’s orders. He taught us to hunt and read and talk and do all those human-y things we love to do. Zeus was a bit disappointed with the final product, though, so he punished us by keeping fire for himself and the other gods. Our boy, Prometheus, wasn’t having that, and he told Zeus to fuck right off. He brought fire down to us, and copped his punishment on the chin. Zeus sentenced him to be eternally fixed to a rock, where each day an eagle would peck out his liver, only for it to regrow overnight and he’d have to go through the same again the next day. So, yeah, we owe Prometheus a lot, and it doesn’t take a genius to see the parallels with Shelley’s Frankenstein

Oh, and another quick note to get out of the way before we dive in: yes, we know, Frankenstein is the name of the doctor, not the monster. We fucking know. People who point it out are (generally) wankers. Shelley never gave the monster in the name, identifying it in the book as the “creature”, “monster”, “demon”, “wretch”, “fiend”, and so on. Of course, she was making a point about how the lack of a name prevents a sentient being from forging a true identity and all of that, but the confusion also means that mistakes will happen and I wish readers wouldn’t make such a big deal about it. I’ll be calling the monster “the monster”, for the sake of clarity, but just so you know if I ever hear you say um-actually-Frankenstein-was-the-doctor in conversation, I will roll my eyes at you.



So, the story of Frankenstein and his monster is actually framed a couple of different ways in the book. It’s an epistolary novel, with events taking place sometime during the 18th century. Captain Robert Walton kicks things off with a few letters to his sister; he’s been trying to sail to the North Pole, and his crew picked up one Dr Victor Frankenstein off the ice, where he had apparently collapsed while chasing after a monstrous creature.

Through a series of conversations with the good doctor, Walton is able to deduce that he actually created this monster and now lives a life of misery and horror as a result of his creation. Frankenstein offers up his story as a cautionary tale, and tells it so…

Young Victor was obsessed with science as a kid, even though everyone else thought he was a weirdo. After his mother died, he took himself off to university, and he began doing experiments as a way of escaping his grief and keeping his mind busy. That’s how he stumbled upon a technique for creating life from inanimate objects.

Now, you might assume he used electricity to do that, but that’s actually not in the canon – Shelley, in her book, described an elemental process and some vague alchemy. The use of electric shocks and screws in the monster’s neck didn’t appear until the 1931 film adaptation and other early depictions of Frankenstein’s monster. So, there you go.

With his new secret chemical formula to make dead things become alive things, Frankenstein created a huge humanoid form (it had to be big, he explained, otherwise the small bits would be too fiddly) out of pieces he scrounged from cadavers. He tried to make it pretty, but when the monster came to life it was scary as all hell. Frankenstein, freaked out by what he had done, reverted to the age-old tradition of doing a runner. He bailed the fuck out of his laboratory, leaving the monster there.



You’d think that would take up most of the pages of this slim book, but Frankenstein moves really quickly, so the story is only just beginning. In perhaps my favourite plot point ever, Dr Frankenstein returned to his laboratory to find the monster missing… and he’s all “Phew! We’re cool! Problem solved!”. He doesn’t even wonder where it went. LOL!

The whole situation stressed him out so much that he ended up getting really sick. He recovered just in time for the monster to kill his little brother. The criminal justice system being what it is, the authorities arrested and convicted the kid’s nanny of the murder, and put her to death. By Frankenstein’s math, that put his monster’s death toll up to two, and he was pissed.

After a while, he reunited with his monster. The poor creature tried to explain himself, saying he was just sad that everyone hated and feared him (aw!). He asked the doctor to build him a wife, so he didn’t have to be lonely anymore. That sounded pretty reasonable to me, but then the monster threatened to kill everyone Frankenstein loved if he didn’t comply with this request – which was, admittedly, less chill.

How is the monster able to communicate these demands, you ask? Well, it turns out he spent most of the intervening time stalking a kind immigrant family, peeping in their windows, and somehow all those hours watching them and stealing from their library taught him language. He’s startlingly eloquent, given the basis of his education. Yes, it’s a bit of a stretch, but if the monster learning to speak is the most unrealistic part of this novel for you, you might need to re-evaluate your priorities…



The doctor headed for England, taking a friend with him, and the monster followed hot on his heels. Frankenstein got to work back in the laboratory, but inside he was still freaking out that the female he created would hate the monster, or turn out even more evil than him, or (worst of all) they might fall in love and start breeding, unleashing a new generation of horror on the world. When that thought occurred to him, it was the final fucking straw. Frankenstein had had a gutful, you guys! He destroyed all the work he had done and told the monster to shove it.

You’d think the monster would fly into a rage at this point, but he actually took the news quite well. In sum, his reaction was: “Yeah, okay, no wife for me, but no wife for you either – when you get married, I’m coming for your girl on your wedding night, so watch your back,”. And then he killed Frankenstein’s friend, just to show he meant business.

Now, I realise Dr Frankenstein doesn’t have a great track record with decision-making, but at this point he makes a truly, unbelievably bad call. Despite the monster’s warnings, and his own growing anxiety, he went ahead and got married to his adopted sister (whom he referred to as his cousin – it’s almost-but-not-quite incest, which is a bit gross, but George R.R. Martin has pretty much deadened our sensitivities on that subject forever).

And, sure enough, that very night, the monster showed up and took her out. The doctor, enraged, chased him all the way to the North Pole, determined to defeat his monstrous creation once and for all, but he collapsed from exhaustion and hypothermia before he could catch him. That’s where Walton and his crew found the man, and we’re back at the beginning again.



Dr Frankenstein promptly dies, but he makes Captain Walton promise to kill the monster on his behalf. The monster, of course, conveniently appears on board shortly thereafter. I was expecting a big violent showdown, but he is able to talk Walton out of killing him by making a big show of mourning the death of his creator. He promises to kill himself instead, and Walton’s all “Um, okay?”, and watches as the monster drifts away on the ice, never to be seen again. It’s not a happy ending – heck, it’s not a happy book.

It was a lot more introspective than I expected. Really, this whole story is about interior worlds. Frankenstein, at its heart, is about the shame and guilt of the Doctor, and the loneliness and desperation of his monster.

Now, this is one of those rare cases where the story of how a book came to be written is just as fascinating as the book itself (if not more!). In 1814, aged just sixteen, Mary met and fell in love with the then-unknown poet Percy Shelley, and she ran away with him. They weren’t married until 1816, shortly after Percy’s first wife died by suicide (oh, yeah, the guy was a real peach).

The idea for Frankenstein came to Mary that year, when she was holidaying with Percy and his mate Lord Byron on the shores of Lake Geneva. Byron suggested that they have a writing competition, to see who could come up with the best ghost story. Mary dithered for a few days, and struggled to come up with anything she thought would be scary enough, but she knew she was onto a winner when she dreamed of a scientist who created life but was horrified by what he had made. She connected that premise with her earlier travels in Geneva, where she’d passed Frankenstein Castle (yes, a real place); in there, a couple centuries earlier, an alchemist had engaged in strange and dark experiments. Boom! A horror story, and the science fiction genre, was born.



The themes of the work, we can see in retrospect, were very clearly drawn from Mary Shelley’s real life. She had a pretty rough trot: her mother died, she had a terrible relationship with her father, her first child was born prematurely and died in her arms while Percy was off having an affair with one of her step-sisters. From these experiences, she distilled themes of loss, guilt, and the consequences of defying nature, and funneled them into Frankenstein. Consider how the monster turns evil due to a lack of parental and spiritual guidance, for instance…

Mary initially conceived Frankenstein as a short story, but with Percy’s encouragement she expanded the manuscript into a full-length novel. She wrote the first four chapters in the weeks following the suicide of her half-sister (told you! rough fucking trot!), and the first edition was published anonymously in January 1818. Then she moved to Italy, where she lived with Percy until he drowned in 1822 (seriously, the woman’s life was just an endless parade of death and misery).

Mary Shelley’s name wasn’t connected to the book until the second edition was published with a proper byline in 1823. She was 25 years old. When the author’s gender was revealed, the British Critic published a review that said:

“The writer of it is, we understand, a female; this is an aggravation of that which is the prevailing fault of the novel; but if our authoress can forget the gentleness of her sex, it is no reason why we should; and we shall therefore dismiss the novel without further comment.”

“Oh, snap!”, they might have thought, but the reading public didn’t give a shit. Frankenstein sold gangbusters; it was an immediate popular success, and by the middle of the 20th century it was demanding serious and extensive critical attention from academics. The list of subsequent adaptations and re-releases is longer than my arm, and readers are, even today, always hungry for more.



Frankenstein fused elements of the Gothic and the Romantic, capturing the attention of both audiences, and it levelled-up the popular ghost stories of the time to create the first true science fiction novel. No longer were monsters and mysterious beings purely fantastical; Shelley gave us a monster that was the product of man’s own actions, his own scientific experimentation and discovery, and that had never been done before. Not bad for a teenager who was just trying to show up her boyfriend and his mate on holiday, eh?

There are now a few different editions floating around, the later ones being highly revised and sanitised. It’s up to you which you’d prefer to read, but I’m a fan of dirty bits in literature, so I’d recommend trying to find the earliest version, as close to the original as you can. I’d also highly recommend you check out this great discussion over on the Keeper Of Pages blog, for more fascinating insights into reading (or re-reading) Frankenstein.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Frankenstein:

  • “free book enough said” – andrew
  • “*SPOILER ALERT* Basically, this guy spent time of his life trying to life from scratch. But when he finally succeeded, he got scared and ran away from it? There are a lot of questionable decisions from him too. He fits the definition of “coward”.” – Rusydi Farhan
  • “I thought I had the wrong book when I started reading it. Very different from most of the Frankenstein movies.” – Mark B
  • “WRONG LANGUAGE” – jackeline
  • “This book stinks! Munsters re-runs are much better” – Rich Fish from Glen Ridge
  • “Very boring story about a crazy science guy who wants to reanimate a Trump lookalike. On the positive side I would like to pitch in and her a hand” – Prince Henri I
  • “Movie was a million times better than that stupid story but I will say that it was very poorly written” – JMann
  • “Terrible novel; long, preachy, unrealistic, especialy where Frankenstein’s “monster” has read Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and other classics and holds forth like an Oxford don.” – Richard Kelly
  • “This book was so boring I threw it out my window. (Almost) It just had too much detail” – Bernard Callahan


The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde

The Picture of Dorian Gray has a special place in my heart, but probably not for the reason you’d expect. See, I have a talent for stumbling upon amazing secondhand bookstores everywhere I go, and my honeymoon was no exception. While searching for cheap happy hours in Tel Aviv, my new husband and I discovered The Little Prince Bookstore & Cafe, where I picked up The Collins Collected Works of Oscar Wilde for just $20AUD (one of my best book bargains ever!). Every time I look at this book, I think back to that amazing trip. I decided to read The Picture of Dorian Gray next because my new husband had read the entire collected works upon our return to Australia, and he promised me I’d love it.

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The Picture of Dorian Gray is a philosophical novel, kind of along the same lines as Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, but cleverer and more subtle. It exists in several versions, and has one hell of a history.

Basically, Oscar Wilde submitted the manuscript (his only novel) to Lippincott Monthly Magazine in 1890, and they agreed to publish it… but, unbeknownst to Wilde, the editor cut out about 500 words, worried that all the references to adultery and homosexuality would offend the delicate sensibilities of the British literary critics. They managed to get offended anyway, even with the offending passages removed, and thus began a year of barbs exchanged via the British press. Wilde published pieces defending the nature of his art, while the reviewers trolled him endlessly and basically accused him of trying to turn everybody gay.

In 1891, The Picture of Dorian Gray was published as a stand-alone book for the first time, and Wilde had made significant revisions (he threw in seven additional chapters, and a preface detailing his defence of the rights of the artist). That final version is the one included in this Collins collection.

So, what’s it all about? Well, the protagonist – Dorian Gray – is a beautiful young man, a lost soul in many respects. He encounters an artist, Basil Hallward, who falls head over heels in love with him (kinda – in this version, Basil is more into his art and sees Dorian as his “muse”, but in the original uncensored version it was all about the gay lust). Basil convinces Dorian to pose as the subject of a full-length oil portrait. While Dorian is posing, one of Basil’s friends drops by, Lord Henry. Now, this is a deal-with-the-devil kind of story, and in this case Lord Henry = Devil, just so you know…

Dorian is seduced by Lord Henry’s hedonistic approach to life. He espouses indulging every whim and desire for beauty and sensuality. Basil finishes the portrait, and Dorian laments (out loud!) that he must grow old while the painting will remain young and beautiful forever. The magical wish-granting fairy overhears him (I assume – Wilde never really explains how this happens) and the portrait begins to age, while Dorian remains forever in his first blush of youth.

Dorian totally ghosts Basil (smh), and he chases after Lord Henry, living a life of immoral pleasures. Dorian has pretty much sold his soul but at least he sold it for a bunch of money and booze and drugs and sex – that’s worth it, surely! There’s no woo-y supernatural bullshit; it’s all presented as a completely normal and realistic turn of events that Dorian would remain young and beautiful while the portrait grows old and haggard, and you get totally lured into the story without needing to check your critical thinking skills at the door.

The Picture of Dorian Gray is packed with historical and literary references. I confess, I let them fly over my head for the most part – I didn’t even bother to check the footnotes most of the time (yes, I’m a philistine). You’ll probably get more out of the story if you look them up, but even if you don’t it’s abundantly clear that Mr Wilde was a very smart chap. This whole story is about aestheticism and the double-lives we all lead, and he picks it apart beautifully without once sounding like a snob. I bet he would have had some real shit to say about Instagram if he were alive today.

Wilde wasn’t just a clever cookie, he was also endlessly quotable. I felt like every page of The Picture Of Dorian Gray had some kind of zinger that I wanted to jot down. On page one(!), he says “there is no such thing as a moral or immoral book”, which is just a damn good point. On page three, he points out that “there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about”. On and on it goes…

Wilde also had a deep emotional investment in his only novel. He once said:

Basil Hallward is what I think I am; Lord Henry is what the world thinks of me; Dorian is what I would like to be – in other ages, perhaps.

Oscar Wilde (On His Novel, The Picture Of Dorian Gray)

To his credit, this was a fun read! My tl;dr summary would be this: The Picture of Dorian Gray is a novel about giving Kim Kardashian or Paris Hilton immortal youth and an endless supply of drugs and liquor. Imagine how that works out…

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Picture of Dorian Gray:

  • “Early it was moving ver slow. After Dorian killed the painter, it moved and finished. Finally it came to an end. End was good.” – Musari Sub
  • “It is a book. What is not to like” – JAC
  • “This book is creepy. I had to sleep with the lights on. I felt like I was going to have a heart attack.” – Lavender Murray
  • “Just read the book I hate being alive it’s a good book everyone knows it just read it amazon sucks” – Alex
  • “I ordered this for my daughter. It was as described in the description.” – Dale LePrad
  • “The entire book can be paraphrased in two sentences and you will wish it had been.” – Nickalaus Luger

The Turn Of The Screw – Henry James

Henry James could never be accused of breviloquence. The Turn Of The Screw is what he called a “tale” – a fictional story with a single plot, too long to be a “short story” (today we call them novellas). In addition to these “tales”, he wrote plays, criticisms, autobiography, travel stories, and some twenty novels (including The Golden Bowl, also on my to-be-read list). Wordy bastard.

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James got ample validation in his time: magazine publishers went gaga for tales towards the end of the 19th century. They were the perfect length to publish in serialised form – not so long that readers would lose interest, but long enough that you could guarantee that sales of the magazine would peak for at least a few weeks (cha-ching!). The Turn Of The Screw was one such story; it appeared in Collier’s Weekly magazine between January and April 1898. It was later published as a stand-alone book, and then eventually revised for what is now called the New York edition (where James made substantial changes, including the ages of central characters).

James loved ghost stories – and he wrote quite a few – but he was bored by the tropes of the genre. He preferred stories that, as he put it, “embroidered the strange and sinister onto the very type of the normal and easy”. Or, to put it in words that an actual human would use, he liked it better when the “ghosts” could easily be tricks of the mind, or something equally normal in day-to-day life, but the reader is left wondering… what if?

He certainly stuck to that formula with The Turn Of The Screw. It’s kind of a story-within-a-story – an unnamed narrator listens to a friend read a manuscript, apparently written by some long-dead former governess. The governess was hired to look after two young orphans, their surviving uncle having no interest in raising them himself. The eldest, a boy, had been expelled from boarding school, and the governess is scared to ask why. She sets about taking care of the children and educating them without seeking any additional information, while the uncle goes off cavorting and demands he be kept out of it.

The governess worries that she’s going crazy, because she starts seeing mysterious figures (a man and a woman) that no one else can see – never a good sign, eh? They come and go, in a way that seems – to the governess – very ghosty. She then learns that the previous governess and her secret lover are both dead, and deduces that they are now (obviously) haunting the children.

What is it about young children that makes any story instantly more creepy? The kids seem to know the ghosts, but they won’t give the governess a straight answer when she asks about them. The youngest (a girl) gets so upset by the governess’ incessant questioning that she demands to be taken away and never see the governess again. It seems like a bit of an overreaction to me, but kids aren’t known to be reasonable.

Then, later that night, the governess discovers the reason for the young boy’s expulsion – he was “saying things” (old-timey schools were very harsh, it would seem). As they’re having a heart-to-heart about it, the male ghost appears, and the governess tries to shield the young boy… only to look down and find that the kid has died! When she looks up, the ghost has gone. WTAF?!

It’s a simple enough story (there’s no sub-plots, nothing else going on, it’s all very straight-forward), but James’s meandering prose makes it seem a lot more complicated. Even though it’s short, it’s a really dense read, and it took me forever to get through it. At first, I thought I was struggling because I’d picked it up in the midst of a really intense wine hangover, but the more I read the more confident I became that the fault lay with James and his inability to coherently articulate a thought.

I could only get on at all… by treating my monstrous ordeal as a push in a direction usual, of course, and unpleasant, but demanding, after all, for a fair front, only another turn of the screw of ordinary human virtue.

One of James’s more readable passages, The Turn Of The Screw (Chapter 22)

As far as literary critique goes, the central question seems to be: are the ghosts real, or is the governess just bonkers? On the one hand, the story alludes to Jane Eyre and the governess can be likened to both the character of Jane and the character of Bertha (the mad wife that Rochester locked in the attic). This would seem to indicate that she is, in fact, nuts. On the other hand, nothing that James writes actually confirms this, and what fun is a ghost story if it was all a delusion in the end? In the end, all critics pretty much fall into one of three camps:

1) The governess was crazy;

2) The governess was not crazy, and ghosts are real; or

3) Trying to work it all out is stupid, it defeats the purpose and ignores the masterful way that James created ambiguity in his storytelling.

Which camp am I in? Well, to be honest, I’m not sure I really care enough about The Turn Of The Screw to pitch a tent in any of them. Perhaps I lean towards the third camp, because I think that anyone who claims to have “the answer” is full of themselves, but I also think that the idea of a “crazy” governess makes for a much more interesting story. More than anything, I think that James would be grossly pleased with himself if he knew that we were all still arguing the point, well over a century after publication. The only way to really “figure it out” is to read it for yourself and decide on your own.

My tl;dr summary of The Turn Of The Screw would be this: a governess goes bonkers and starts seeing ghosts (that may or may not be real), kind of like an old-timey Sixth Sense, but told in the wordiest-possible way.

P.S. I figured, while I was at it, I’d go ahead and read The Golden Bowl next… and my review is up now!

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Turn Of The Screw:

  • “This book was supposed to be a horror/mystery/thriller type story and I saw nothing scary about it. What I did see was two maids who couldn’t keep from gossiping and making up tales with absolutely nothing to give them credence.” – Paula
  • “There are no more commas left in the world for anyone else because Henry James USED THEM ALL.” – BarbMama
  • “It is SO boring. Takes pages and pages to get to the point which is about some woman with an overactive imagination. Had to stop reading it (very rare for me).” – Meandering
  • “…. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who liked WUTHERING HEIGHTS, which belongs in the same genre and in the same rubbish bin….” – Richard Niichel

The Dressmaker – Rosalie Ham

I’ve got to be honest: my Keeping Up With The Penguins reading 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 review it in future! In the meantime, I’ve picked up one of the ones that made it past the keeper: The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham.

The Dressmaker - Rosalie Ham - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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The Dressmaker is Ham’s debut novel – and yet it’s sold over 100,000 copies since publication in 2000. What’s more, Ham has said that she wrote The Dressmaker by “accident”, 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 story is set in a (fictional) 1950s Australian town, where everyone has names like “Gertrude” and “Muriel”. The protagonist (Myrtle “Tilly” Dunnage) returns 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 cop who likes wearing dresses (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?

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.

The Dressmaker thus ends with 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…”

The Dressmaker (Emphasis Mine)

(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
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