The Dressmaker by Australian author Rosalie Ham was made into a wonderful movie starring Kate Winslet and a mob of Australia’s best actors last year. Since watching the movie I had been looking forward to reading the book, especially since having read There Should be More Dancing by Rosalie Ham.
The Dressmaker is set in a fictional Australian country town called Dungatar, and with a name like that, you just know it is probably out on the far side of Woop-Woop. Dungatar comprises of a railway station, a pub, general store, a police station, pharmacy and a Post Office. Everyone in town knows everybody else’s business, and ignore most of each other’s dirty little secrets, unless they can use them to their advantage. Most of the townspeople are either victims or bullies, with only a handful of genuinely kind-hearted people amongst them.
Dungatar gets the shake-up it needs when Tilly Dunnage arrives to look after her mother, Mad Molly. Molly, who lives in poverty and squalor, is suffering from dementia and neglect. Most of the townspeople have ignored Molly, who gave birth to Tilly out of wedlock, leaving her to rot in her falling down house which sits on the hill above Dungatar. Sergeant Farrar, Dungatar’s cross-dressing policeman, and the town’s poorest family, the McSwineys, were the only people who cared for Molly until Tilly’s return.
Tilly was sent away from Dungatar as a child after the mysterious death of another child. She became a dressmaker and studyied with the most famous names in couture, Dior, Balmain and Balenciaga. When Tilly returned to Dungatar, it didn’t take long for the local women to employ her skills. Very soon, most of the women were swanning around town in outfits that the rest of us could only dream of wearing. (If you are at all interested in clothes, watch the movie, The Dressmaker. The costumes are a joy to look at, glamourous and beautiful, and totally out of reach in real life. I was lucky enough to see a display of the costumes from the movie and have been dreaming about them ever since).
On returning to Dungatar, Tilly fell in love with Teddy McSwiney, and for a little while, it looked as if she had a chance of being happy, but unfortunately, this was not to be. (In the movie, Teddy is played by a Hemsworth brother, not sure which one, but they are all lovely to look at).
Eventually, Tilly decides to get her revenge, and wreaked havoc on the whole town and everyone in it, which in my opinion served them right.
I liked The Dressmaker, with a few reservations. I’m not sure that readers from other countries would enjoy this story quite as much as an Australian reader, as a lot of the humour and descriptions are probably better suited to local tastes. The story got a bit complicated towards the end, too. My biggest complaint about the writing was how often the author mentions scrotums. Yuck. There are things I don’t need to know about, or have described to me. The mental image of a withered, dangling, tomato-like scrotum will probably stay with me longer than I would have liked.
The best things about The Dressmaker were that it doesn’t showcase Australia in the best possible light, as the plot is dark, most of the characters are nasty and the town itself is unpleasant. Mad Molly is a scream. She cuts everyone down to size in a few sarcastic words, and generally gets away with behaving as badly as she likes. (In the movie, Molly is played by the great Australian actress Judy Davis and stole the whole show). Then, there are the clothes… (sigh of happiness). Reading about beautiful clothes is up there with reading about chocolate, or baking…
So, my advice to non-Australians would be to watch the movie, The Dressmaker, and if you really love it, follow up by reading the book.