Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

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
Buy The Dressmaker here.
(And you’ll make a book reviewer very happy if you make a purchase through an affiliate link on this page – you’ll be sending a small commission my way!)

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 Lifelong unpublished struggling writers everywhere are eating their hearts out…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


  1. I’ve had this movie on my Prime Watchlist for some time—not particularly interested in the book and even less interested now after your review. Haha! As for Australian authors, I read The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman last month and thought it very good.

    • ShereeKUWTP

      September 26, 2018 at 12:43 PM

      Ooooh, that’s a great recommendation, thank you! I recently watched the Dressmaker movie, after writing up this review, and it’s not half bad – I love Hugo Weaving, and it was a lot more light/gentle in many respects! Let me know what you think if you give it a go 😉

  2. No!! I loved the book! The movie was fabulous as well, but I LOVED the book.

    • ShereeKUWTP

      September 26, 2018 at 5:48 PM

      Hahahahaha well we can’t agree completely on *every* book Theresa, our readers would start to smell a rat 😛 Looking back over this review, perhaps I was a little harsh, though. I think perhaps I was just a bit thrown by the cover’s promise of a “bittersweet comedy” – I laughed out loud, quite a few times, BUT it was a lot darker and a lot more gothic than I was anticipating.

      • The darkness was what I loved, and that ending! But it’s a book that is not to everyone’s taste, for sure. I’ve always loved extreme quirk with dark humour though. I have her newest sitting there waiting for review. May read it this weekend.

  3. Join a creative writing course and produce a bestseller?
    Where do I sign?

  4. 1) How did I miss a Kate Winslet movie?!?! *cries* I don’t care if it’s not great; I must watch.

    2) That writing is HILARIOUS. The fact that the author likens something to a discarded scrotum makes me want to read this book all the more.

    3) I have recently been delving into Australian authors, and while some of the lingo can be a bit tricky, as well as some of the animals (wtf is a kookaburra?!?), I really love escaping to someplace that seems familiar yet still miles away from anyplace I’ve experienced. I can recommend these two great books from Australian authors:
    –TUMBLEDOWN MANOR by Helen Brown. If you’ve read my blog, you know that I love a good “woman takes on fixer-upper house and reinvents her life” theme, and this book completely fits that bill. Plus, the main character is a writer, and since I’m an aspiring novelist, the sections in which she describes writing really spoke to me.
    –CAMPAIGN RUBY by Jessica Rudd. I was completely surprised by how much I loved this book. It’s sweet, very witty, and extremely interesting, which is saying a lot since I barely follow American politics, let alone Australian politics. But, this is not a political book; I guess it’s chick lit? Really fun. There’s a sequel, but since the first book didn’t gain much traction in the States, I haven’t been able to get my hands on the sequel at my library.

    Hope you get a chance to read these books! 🙂

    • ShereeKUWTP

      September 27, 2018 at 10:50 AM

      The movie is definitely worth a watch (Kate Winslet is perfection, natch, but Hugo Weaving steals the show IMHO!). And thank you so much for those recommendations!! I was actually surprised that Jessica Rudd’s books weren’t bigger news – I’m an Aussie politics junkie, but even I haven’t heard as much about them as I’d expected. And I hadn’t even heard of Tumbeldown Manor! Both of those are going under consideration for The Next List, much appreciated! 😉

      • I’m really surprised that the Rudd books didn’t go over bigger here, too. I really loved the one I read. But, I do think the political aspect to the book had a part in that. There were definitely some paragraphs and pages I skimmed over because I couldn’t keep track of names, laws, etc, and that I just didn’t care to invest time in. I liked the surrounding story so much, though, and even the more general political discussions, that the book was still a winner for me. But I unfortunately can see that not being the case for everyone in the U.S. :-\

        I hope you like Tumbledown Manor! I originally picked it up because of the cover. I’m a sucker for a good book cover. 😀 (This is the version I found:

  5. It’s great to see an Australian novel on your list, although that Tilly sounds like a pretty dark character 🙂 I haven’t seen the movie or read the book yet, but Ham’s style of writing must have something going for it, to draw in so many people.
    As you’re looking for extra Aussies, I’d love to see you include some Ruth Park penguins, especially the Harp in the South trilogy. I want to re-read them myself next year, and would love to see what you make of them.

    • ShereeKUWTP

      September 29, 2018 at 1:08 PM

      The movie definitely has more of a rom-com feel (I watched it after writing this review), so I’d say give that a go if you’re in the mood for something a little lighter 😉 And thank you for suggestion re: Ruth Park! I’ll add it to my list of contenders!

  6. “A steaming pile of rubbish, ” GAHAHAHAHAHAA!!!! I am so inspired to read amazon reviews each time you post. “Vignettes of perverts” is how I am now going to describe the US government, truly.

    I think it’s inspiring that Ham wrote this book for a writing course and now it is going to be made into a movie–every writer’s dream. I haven’t read the book and am not sure if I want to see the movie. Although, for real, those amazon reviewers have me going.

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