The Midnight Dress by Karen Foxlee. UQP 2013
The Midnight Dress is a story about many things – friendship, loss, secrets, betrayal – but most of all, love. The writing is emotive, evocative, atmospheric. I couldn’t read Rose’s story with half my attention on what I would say later in this review. I couldn’t help but become fully immersed in the world of the story.
This is the story of a motherless girl (Rose Lovell) and a fatherless girl (Pearl Kelly) who meet when Rose’s drifter father Patrick decides to stop in a small Northern Queensland town. Rose is, at first, reluctant to attend school. She is also reluctant to become friends with Pearl – a friendship that begins pessimistically, based on a snap decision Rose makes on the first day she attends Lenora High.
“Geography or French?” asks Pearl. “French,” says Rose. Pearl even asks Rose later in the book – “What if you had chosen Geography?”
It’s sugarcane country, and the annual Harvest Parade (something else Rose would much rather avoid) is the celebration that the story builds towards. However, as the reader, you know in advance that this won’t be all celebration, as right from the beginning you are privy to pieces of the later parts of this story. The tragedy that unfolds alongside the more hopeful story of Rose and Pearl’s growing friendship has your mind already searching the text for the clues that will solve the crime.
I was amazed by how well the unusual structure of this story worked. At first I found it a little odd that so much of what’s to come is divulged to the reader at the beginning of each chapter. Half to a few pages of italicized text that clearly begins somewhere near the end and outcome of the story, creating tension, building backwards chapter by chapter, until it meets up with the forward story and propels you towards an ending that has become inevitable.
The first sentence of the first chapter is “Will you forgive me if I tell you the ending?”
These chapter prologues (for want of a better description) are told from the POV of the all-seeing, all-knowing omnipotent narrator – in this case the author herself. Author intrusion doesn’t usually work, but for this story, even though – or more likely because – the structure is so unique, it works. Even so, at one point early on I wondered if I should skip them and just read the story through to the end. I wondered if that was a choice the author intended by structuring the novel in this way. I wondered if it would make a difference to the reading experience.
The other star of this story is Edie. The girls all need dresses for the Harvest Parade. Most girls travel into the city to get their gowns, in the hope of being chosen to be one of seven Harvest Princesses, but Rose has neither the money nor the inclination. She is told of a local dressmaker who may be able to help her with her dress. This is Edie, an elderly woman living a lonely life as an outcast – someone to be whispered about in the streets by the locals. Edie is different and we all know that society is intolerant and suspicious of difference, and these feelings are even more pronounced in a small town setting.
Edie’s history – a love story of sorts – is woven through the narrative during Rose’s visits. The making, by hand, of the Midnight Dress becomes a kind of meditative therapy. Edie becomes ‘mentor’, and Rose changes – becomes smoother, less sharp-edged – as the dress takes shape. Edie lives in squalor, yet seems happy surrounded by her ‘things’. She feels safe with the mountains and rainforest at her back. This is her home – however dysfunctional. She has grown roots here.
Edie’s house became, for me, a character in its own right. It was a living, breathing thing that I could picture in my mind as though I was right there looking at it, walking through it – which would be difficult with all of Edie’s things cluttering it up. The quality of the description of this relic of a house only proves how fully the author imagined it – with all of her senses. Edie tells Rose of the ‘spell’ the rainforest cast over herself and her mother; the same spell that Rose inevitably falls under. The same type of spell is cast by this author.
Foxlee masterfully gathers the threads of her story together to give the reader an ending that may not be unexpected yet is still extremely satisfying. Rose loved words – collected them in her green notebook. Foxlee loves words and has a knack for using the perfect one. I gave The Midnight Dress 5 stars on ‘Goodreads’ and I believe it deserves every one of those stars. I highly recommend this book.
– Lisa Wardle
Lisa Wardle is a writer, blogger and avid reader. She enjoys paper crafts and spending time with her family. She has interviewed more than 30 authors for her blog, and has had her poetry and stories published in various literary magazines. Her short story collection Reflections was published in 2009 by Ginninderra Press. She can be found at http://lisa-wardle.blogspot.com.au/
The Midnight Dress is available from http://www.uqp.uq.edu.au/book.aspx/1231/The%20Midnight%20Dress