Tilly Dunnage’s homecoming after years away from her tiny hometown in rural Australia goes far from unnoticed. Dungatar is the kind of place where everybody knows everybody else’s business and has for their entire lives, the kind of place where everyone knows who used to wet their pants at school when they were all in the playground together.
It’s the kind of isolated place that’s 30 miles from the nearest doctor, where the resident pharmacist and self-appointed sin assessor secretly uses his concoctions to mete out nasty little punishments. Here the postmistress opens everyone’s mail before delivering it — and sometimes keeps items that catch her fancy. The elite, highclass family is secretly up to their eyeballs in debt, And most people in town indulge in illicit and furtive sex.
Tilly returns home with decades of couture dressmaking experience under her professional belt — having studied under the tutelage of Balmain, Balenciaga, and Dior — and a stubborn determination to look after her elderly mother, Mad Molly. But most of the townspeople welcome her back with stares and silence, glares and grumpiness.
While the reasons behind these reactions are slowly but sharply exposed, the book’s true pleasures involve the way Rosalie Ham has small-town living down pat — including cool, dispassionate observations of the petty squabbles, gossip, and unkindnesses that people sometimes indulge in when in close quarters — and the ways in which she channels welcome shades of British novelist Angela Carter’s sly, funny, and wickedly Gothic adornments.
From a cross-dressing policeman who tap dances on the bar in a top hat and tails to celebrate the town’s win at football and the local harridan who literally foams at the mouth when enraged, to the riveting image of Mad Molly’s “scarred old heart beating on and on,” “The Dressmaker’’ has a compelling mix of magical and surreal elements.
The women reluctantly start warming to Tilly because of her sewing skills: Not just a mere seamstress, Tilly has the ability to produce creations that enhance their wearers’ best physical and personal qualities, a mesmerizing gift that recalls the keen transformative powers of Vianne Rocher’s handmade sweeties in Joanne Harris’s “Chocolat.’’ And when Tilly is courted by the town hottie and sports star, a kind of encroaching enchantment seems to linger promisingly over the town.
That said, “The Dressmaker’’ is no fairy tale — though it does contain distinctly Brothers Grimm elements when it comes to characters’ comeuppances as well as some terrifically visual mini set pieces: “She tugged her mother from her crusty bed and pulled her tottering towards the bath. Mad Molly cursed, scratched and punched Tilly with Daddy Long Legs limbs, but soon tired and folded easily into the water. . . . ‘Give me your teeth,’ said Tilly. Molly clamped her mouth shut. Tilly pressed Molly’s forearms across her chest, pinning her, then pinched her nostrils until Molly opened her mouth to breathe. She prised the teeth out with a spoon and dropped them into a bucket of ammonia.”
Originally published in Ham’s native Australia in 2000, the novel is being released here now in a synergistically and timely fashion: A film adaptation starring Kate Winslet and Judy Davis is due out in October that should prove just as startling an experience to watch as the book is to read: “When I read Rosalie Ham’s novel, ‘The Dressmaker,’ I realised that it was ‘Unforgiven’ with a sewing machine,” noted “Dressmaker’’ film director and screenwriter Jocelyn Moorhouse in a 2013 interview. Blunt, raw and more than a little fantastical, the novel exposes both the dark and the shimmering lights in our human hearts.
By Rosalie Ham
Penguin, 288 pp., paperback, $16
Daneet Steffens is a journalist and book critic. Follow her on Twitter @daneetsteffens.