My local secondhand book shop told me they had a run on requests for this book in the last six months – a waiting list for copies in the double digits. Not too shabby for a book published in 2000, right? Obviously, getting made into a movie starring Kate Winslett and basically every Australian actor ever (short of Hugh Jackman) doesn’t hurt.
This was a read for my book club. As locating a copy through my local or through the library was virtually impossible with only two months’ notice (see above), I acquired a copy of the audiobook, recorded last year with narration by Rachel Griffiths (how lovely to hear an Australian story in an Australian voice), part of the movie tie-in.
First of all, this book is almost designed to be a film. The characters are concentrated archetypes of every small-town character you could hope to find, every character seems to have a secret, the hero has a mysterious past, fashion and colour forms a major part of the plot, and it’s all set in picturesque rural Victoria in the 1950s.
Second of all, this is a very Australian book. Iced Vovos, footy, silos, galahs, Bex powders, and Horlicks all make perfect sense to the Australian reader, but might throw an international reader out of the action.
The hero is Myrtle ‘Tilly’ Dunnage – banished from her home town of Dungatar as a child after a terrible incident. Tilly spent the last 20 years becoming a dressmaker, trained in the great fashion houses of Europe, but is now back, supposedly to care for her ailing mother. Any warm welcome Tilly might have hoped for is absent – the old prejudice against her unmarried mother and Tilly as her bastard offspring are still prevalent in the town.
Tilly’s dressmaking skills and fashion begin to change the look of the town. Throw in a budding romance with local football hero Teddy (Liam Hemsworth in the film – get it, Tilly!), and it seems as though Tilly’s future in Dungatar is hopeful.
This is not a sweet romance or comedy, though. This is absolutely a Gothic novel. The plot is best left to be discovered, but the section titles of the book (Gingham, Shantung, Felt, Brocade) each represent a different phase of the story. Imagine the drama of Brocade. It’s pretty satisfying.