In brief: Tilly Dunnage returns home to small Australian town Dungatar to look after her mother. She’s exotic, and not to be trusted according to the townsfolk after a tragic childhood incident. But they have their own secrets…
The good: Certainly surprising – I didn’t think the narrative would go down some of the paths it did.
The not-so-good: It’s a book of many genres from light hearted fiction, to dysfunctional relationships and domestic thriller.
Why I chose it: Seen a lot of adverts for the movie.
Year: 2000 (novel); 2015 (audiobook)
Duration: 7 hours 38 minutes (book is 296 pages)
Narrators: Rachel Griffiths
Publisher: Duffy & Snellgrove
Setting: Country Australia
Rating: 5 out of 10
Like most of Australia, I’ve seen numerous print and TV ads for The Dressmaker movie (and Kate Winslet does a perfect Aussie accent in them). Because I lack the patience to see a movie (not to mention begrudge the cost – it was cheaper to buy the audiobook than see the movie), I decided to listen to the audiobook instead. Now I’m intrigued to see what liberties (if any) the film takes with the plot, because the book is a hot mess of genres and despicable characters.
If you asked me to summarise the likely plot of The Dressmaker, I would say it’s about a girl who returns to her small country hometown and comes up against some resistance against the people, but it all turns out well in the end. Forget the happy ending in reality – this book contains a lot of character carnage and the ending is not happy. I’m not saying that a book has to have a happily ever after to be considered a worthy read, but the story is patchy and loses focus. First of all, Tilly (the dressmaker) isn’t the main character. She’s more like the reason the story starts where it does, then drifts in and out of the narrative. Is Tilly a heroine? I thought her more the voice of reason until the finale, when she did something that appeared just too unrealistic for what the reader knew of her character. Her mother Molly, who has dementia, is more of a delightful character, telling things how they are until she suffers a cruel fate like so many others.
The townspeople are a collection of stereotypes. We have the dowdy daughter, the girl who reinvents herself (with Tilly’s help) to snag the catch of the town, the interfering mother in law, gossips, cross dressing policeman, cheating husband and nosey shopkeepers. There’s very little to like about any of them and sometimes it’s hard to distinguish who’s who. They’re described in a fashion which is almost cruel (but I think was intended to be humorous). The majority of them all meet a grotesque fate (seriously Dungatar must have the highest rate of murder / mental illness and sudden death in Australia) and I actually lost track of the body count at one stage. It almost becomes a list to match the character with their fate, the more outlandish the better.
Rachel Griffiths started off as a good narrator – she didn’t seem to act out the story as much as other narrators do initially (maybe because she is an actress and worried about overplaying?). But then she started to get into the swing of things and towards the end (if you get this far) she did some great Macbeth! I’d love to know what she thought of the story.
My own thoughts are a bit of a love/hate mix – there are some parts I really enjoyed, such as the descriptions of the 1950s dresses and Sergeant Farrat. But it seemed to mix up genres and be so bitchy at times about small towns that I wanted to turn it off. I didn’t really think it was a comedy, it felt crueler. I didn’t understand Tilly’s final actions and some of the townspeople’s actions too seemed petty and vindictive. The ending seemed off kilter from the beginning, like the start was historical fiction and the end was Terminator. This is one case where I hope the movie is better than the book.