Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Karen Foxlee: The Midnight Dress

This review is part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014

Karen Foxlee was an author completely unknown to me. Why hadn’t I heard of her before stumbling across The Midnight Dress in my local library?

It’s one of the best reads from 2013. Reading her second novel makes Karen’s debut award-winning The Anatomy of Wings a must so I borrowed it while it was in [Watch this space!].

This story has ingredients that would normally be a turn off: the friendship of two 15-year-old schoolgirls in a small Queensland town; dressmaking; a harvest parade; elements of the gothic and the romantic (in both senses of the word) and the magical; an assortment of challenged adolescent and adult males; a mysterious old woman in a cluttered, ‘mildewy’ house.

On the other hand, the setting is an obvious attraction. The fictional town of Leonora is on the tropical coast of FNQ (Far North Queensland) where the sugarcane plantations are nestled between the palm-fringed bays and beaches and the mountain forests. Even the caravan park dares to be ‘Paradise’. The climate dominates, especially the wet season: ‘The rain comes in sudden exhausted sighs and spontaneous downpours…’

It is 1986, the year of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. New girl Rose and local Pearl have innocence and naiveté that match their names, despite or perhaps because of baggage associated with their single-parent families. Their school suitors also lack street-wisdom. Motherless Rose, ‘who is not used to being touched.’ is suspicious of boys. Fatherless Pearl is more gullible. She’s a fan of pulp romance: “You know how in all those books you always end up loving the one you didn’t like in the beginning?”

Edie Baker, Rose’s mentor, is more suited to the nineteen century, even her name is somewhat archaic. [In the 1950s we all seemed to have an elderly relative living in rural Australia named Edie.] She lives with the legacy of a father scarred literally and figuratively by the First World War and a mother who passed on her dressmaking skills, the family home and a mountain retreat.

Foxlee uses a consistent structure with each chapter named after a stitch. There is a short passage using a subjective narrator who explores the central mystery - a missing girl. At times it addresses the reader directly with tantalising teasers such as the beginning sentence: ‘Will you forgive me if I tell you the ending?’, or later ‘What if they made a different decision right then? What if Rose could go backward?’

The other part of the chapter is a more detached sequential telling of the tale. Clues, red herrings and potential spoilers are scattered through both, resembling Agatha Christie at her best. Enough said about the plot.

Karen’s style is very modern, with the prose stripped of adjectives. At the same time it feels like it could have been written in the 1980s. The elegant simplicity of the language belies a strong poetic quality. [Grumpy old blogger alert!] Anyway, what’s not to enjoy about a story of relationships without smart phones and social media.

The thrill of the hunt is a major aspect but this book doesn’t really fit the crime genre. It is essentially about that cliché of all good novels, the human condition: friendship, rites of passage, sins of the fathers, the cruelty of fate.

We are asked, “What if everything could be changed?’ Why not it’s just a story. Yet this one ends on an affirmative note bringing us full circle: “And so it begins.”

1 comment:

  1. I like novels about friendship, rites of passage, sins of the fathers, the cruelty of fate. Hope that I like thios one as well. Qualified will make your paper clear and explicit revealing all hidden problems.