Rosalie Ham – The Dressmaker

Duffy and Snellgrove Sydney Australia 2000

Rosalie Ham is the author four novels. The Dressmaker is the first, a novel that began its life as a 500 word concept for a novel writing course, intended perhaps to be a short story, now with worldwide sales and made into a highly successful movie in 2015.

Barbie’s interview with Rosalie Ham

The story is allegorical and its characters are named therefore to evoke their traits. Somehow, however, Rosalie Ham avoids the trap of caricature. With leading themes of the long shadows of sexual abuse, abuse of power, the propensity of the small enclosed society for cruelty and hypocrisy, the lot of the outsider and the redemptive power of love, this is a novel that works on many levels. It is also a novel about revenge.

I have of course not yet mentioned the Leitmotif of fashion and its power to transform – in this case, the individual transformations are superficial and wrought with vengeance in mind, a path to retribution. After decades away, Tilly, our heroine, comes back from Paris (and other cities along the way) to the town of Dungatar, the site of childhood misery and mystery, of loss and separation. She comes to resolve her questions, to ’find’ her mother and have her mother find her. And she comes with her weapon of choice, the Singer sewing machine, for she has transformed herself into a couturier in the absent years.

To say the resolution, the denouement, is deeply satisfying is to gloss over the finely woven network of stories at play here. This is also a novel of sharp humour and perspicacious observation from a writer who knows the nature of small (Australian) towns, their strengths and foibles. The story is set in the 1950s and some things have changed in that time – but perhaps not everything yet.

People who have seen the beautifully conceived and made film of this novel but not read it, will find much on the written page to deepen their admiration for this work.