When I featured Karen Foxlee on Meet an Aussie Author last year, I promised myself that I would read her second novel as soon as it was released, and it was no hardship to keep that promise at all. With quirky characters and an intriguing plot The Midnight Dress is just as compelling as the award-winning Anatomy of Wings. (See my review here). Before long you will be in a pleasurable quandary: read on, as fast as you can, to find out what happens? Or take your time, and linger to savour the pleasure for as long as you can …
The novel is cunningly constructed in alternating time frames signalled by changes in font. The first chapter begins with ‘Will you forgive me if I tell you the ending?’ and reveals a girl in a ‘magical’ dress waiting to meet someone. It is a hot humid night somewhere away from the town. She is young, and inexperienced. This moment is like her dreams and she is uncertain how to stand, how to arrange herself for him … This thread of the story is a psychological thriller, moving on from the disappearance of the girl through to the police interrogation of various townspeople. It becomes quite harrowing.
And then there is the story of the dress. Rose Lovell’s father is a drifter. He’s an alcoholic, and for as long as she can remember, she has traipsed around small towns with him, watching him lapse yet again. She’s a teenager now, with a huge chip on her shoulder. As well she might, because he lets her down every time and she has learned not to expect much from life.
As usual they never have any money and when at this school the big excitement is the annual Harvest Parade, Rose’s reluctance to have anything to do with it is partly because she has no hope of buying a dress and partly because she doesn’t fit in with anything anyway. At an age when most young people care a great deal about how they look, she has only a cheap, scanty wardrobe and so she does everything she can to make it look as if she doesn’t care.
Most of the other girls make their contempt quite clear, but Pearl – blithe, beautiful Pearl – thinks well of everyone. She takes Rose under her wing, and her irrepressible enthusiasm breaks through Rose’s protective shell. Against her better judgement Rose goes off to eccentric Edie Baker, whose home is strewn with scraps of old material from which they are to assemble a dress. The house is a gothic ruin, with plants growing through walls and floors, and a teacup with Edie’s father’s glass eye on the shelf.
Instead of skulking in the caravan writing in her green notebook while waiting for her father to fall off the wagon again, Rose begins to spend her evenings at Edie’s. As they deconstruct torn and moth-eaten vintage dresses for Edie’s new design, Rose listens to the old woman’s stories and learns to hand-sew the seams. From Edie she discovers the lure of climbing, and finds a special place on the mountain. At the same time, as her friendship with Pearl intensifies, she tries to wean her friend away from Pollyanna fantasies that will only end in tears.
Although The Midnight Dress is a tale of adolescence, I hesitate to label it YA because it will have wider appeal than that. This is a coming-of-age story with a difference. Whose view of the world is wisest, Pearl’s naive optimism, or Rose’s brittle cynicism?
Peter Pierce at the SMH calls it ‘an accomplished performance by a writer who is consolidating a career of imaginative daring and literary assurance’.
Author: Karen Foxlee
Title: The Midnight Dress
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press), 2012
Source: Review copy courtesy of UQP