Thousands of fans embraced Rosalie Ham’s first novel, The Dressmaker, when it appeared in 2000. Set in the little country town of Dungatar, it told the story of a prodigal daughter, Tilly Dunnage, who returns as a talented seamstress. Before long she has the farmer’s wives and daughters swanning down the main street in figure-flattering couture copies. The tone was brisk, the situations at times absurd (the cross-dressing policeman who is also handy with a needle; the township’s ill-fated production of Macbeth). The novel described itself as ‘Australian gothic’, but for all the dark secrets (and there were several) the style hovered more closely to warm-hearted satire, with characters like Reg Blood the butcher, Faith the adulteress, Prudence Dim the teacher, and Beula Harridene the gossip living up to her name.
There Should Be More Dancing is Rosalie Ham’s third novel (a second, Summer at Mount Hope, was published in 2005) and introduces Margery Blandon. Right at the beginning Margery declares, ‘Everyone I’ve known for the last sixty years has betrayed me,’ and indeed this tale of old age and grasping adult children contains some devastating revelations for Margery.
Like Tilly in The Dressmaker, Margery is also handy with a needle, though in her case it is not for couture dresses but for cross-stitch. Cross-stitched samplers completely cover the walls of her home. Margery likes a proverb, and many of her cross-stitched messages are straight from the ‘thought for the day’ section of the desk calendar: ‘Great things are done when men and mountains meet’; ‘Who gossips to you will gossip of you’ (made for her neighbour, Pat); and ‘Deceit always returns to its master’.
Widowed after her husband Lance died in an accident at the pub involving his oxygen tank and a lighted match (the pub was later rebuilt), Margery’s life at 80 consists of cross-stitching, looking out the window, and daily visits to her less mobile but equally elderly neighbour, Mrs Parsons.
Her three adult children have their own share of problems: the eldest, Walter, who we first meet donning a tight purple suit on the occasion of his mother’s 80th birthday party, was Middleweight Boxing Champion until a knockout in the ring ended his career and the best part of his ability to concentrate. A tendency to sudden, violent rage remains a legacy. Morris, the middle child, is in Thailand and hasn’t seen his mother since the punch-up at his father’s funeral 20 years ago. Judith, the youngest and most vocally unhappy at 50 years old, is determined to get her mother out of the house she has lived in for the past 60 years and into ‘a nice air-conditioned home’. Judith’s estate-agent husband is equally keen, as is his mistress, Charmaine. Margery is resolute: she isn’t going anywhere.
Into this fraught family dynamic comes Anita, the home care worker, a whirlwind of efficiency determined to make a good impression on her parole officer. Anita recognises Margery shouldn’t be on her own – she is at the age for falls, and has had several – and so solves two problems at once by getting her own elderly mother, Florence (recently evicted for arson), to move in. But Margery is not a fan:
Last week, they moved Florence into my home. The second I laid eyes on her standing there in my doorway, with her Ava Gardner hair and Lana Turner bust, I said to myself, ‘This isn’t going to work.’
Which is how Margery comes to be spending the night in a large hotel, contemplating jumping 43 floors to her death. As Margery waits for the crowds to clear before making her leap through the hotel’s atrium, she contemplates her life and the revelations of the past week.
The novel is told alternately in the first-person by Margery over the course of her night in the hotel room, and in chapters of third-person narrative that allow us into the lives of those around her.
Margery is not an easy character – abrasive, blind to her faults, quick to judge. Indeed there are moments when it seems the author is daring the reader to like her. There is a touch of Edna Everage in Margery, too, with her self-absorption and wisteria rinse – and casual put-downs, as in this exchange about doctors:
‘… they’re all sorcerers and thimbleriggers.’
‘Didn’t you work for one for forty years?’
‘Forty-four, but I never imagined he’d be able to cure me of anything.’
Whereas her neighbour Mrs Parsons could be channelling another Humphries creation, Sandy Stone:
‘I went in an aeroplane once.’
‘What does it look like from up there?’ Margery asked.
‘I had the aisle seat.’
But at other times Margery comes across as simply querulous:
‘Renovators,’ Margery sniffed. ‘They take all the parking spots in the street, have a baby – think they’re the first people in the world to have one – then take up all the room on the footpath with those ruddy great prams. You can’t get around them with a shopping cart.’
And her life, blighted by early tragedy and unrealistic expectations of marriage (it was nothing like Mrs Miniver’s in her favourite film), has not been a happy one. Her solace is talking to her dead twin, Cecily, polishing Walter’s boxing trophies, and cross-stitch:
If I do something simple, like arrowhead stitch, it settles my nerves, and if I need to be distracted from something worrying, I do something more complicated, like double-herringbone …
The truth, when she discovers it, offers redemption of a kind, if she can grasp it. But after a lifetime of not seeing what’s in front of her, can this old dog really learn new tricks?
In an interview in 2005 Rosalie Ham talked about having worked in a nursing home for 21years. And she certainly understands the practicalities of aged care – the falls, the stubborn denial of increasing frailty, the arrival of the home care nurse with her box of dressings, and the approaching shadow of the nursing home. The novel depicts a range of elderly women: Margery, grimly hanging on to her home; her neighbour Pat, once the life of every party, now demented and forced into a nursing home (a removal aided and abetted by Margery); Mrs Parsons next-door, quietly sitting out her days in the kitchen with the radio; and the homeless Florence, with her beer and cigarettes and careless ways with matches.
Rosalie Ham is good at creating the dynamics within small communities, whether the small country town of Dungatar in The Dressmaker or the gentrifying inner-city suburb of There Should Be More Dancing. Here the conflicts between old-timers and new arrivals, the old resentments feeding into present problems, are convincingly drawn.
But it is Margery who holds the stage. For all her scratchiness and selfishness, there is something intensely vulnerable about her that saves her from simple mean-mindedness. This is the paradox at the heart of this novel: its spry tone and absurdist comedy cannot overwhelm the pathos that pervades Margery’s story. We are invited to laugh at her, with her, and even to weep for her. It’s a risky strategy: just where is the reader’s sympathy to lie? Margery’s pig-headedness is also the wellspring of her energy; if she loses that, does she become merely pathetic?
Just as Margery is a more complex, more demanding and less obviously appealing character than the stylish and capable Tilly Dunnage, There Should Be More Dancing is an edgier and more ambitious novel than The Dressmaker. But it confronts its big themes robustly, and confirms Rosalie Ham as a daring and original writer.
Rosalie Ham There Should Be More Dancing Random House 2011 PB 345pp $32.95
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