This is a story of friendship set in a Queensland town, not far from Cairns, between two young women: Rose, 15 going on 16, whose father is an itinerant artist; and Pearl, an endearing, vibrant girl who befriends her at school.
Rose’s father is an alcoholic. He tries to remain sober when he arrives in a new town but after several weeks he will usually succumb and they then move to another caravan park. This has been the pattern of her life since her mother died when she was five. Rose is understandably defensive and rather critically antisocial and expects that they will only stay in this town for a short while until he succumbs to his alcoholism again. She does, however, enrol at the local school as a result of pressure from the owner of the caravan park.
Pearl’s mother runs a gift shop. Rose arrives there to work on a school assignment with Pearl:
The rain pummelling on the shop roof is deafening, cascading off the awning in a fountain. There are crystals everywhere, shelves and shelves of them, lumps of amethyst, agate, amber amulets hanging in neat lines. Tiger’s eye and chalcedony, rose quartz, carnelian, citrine, jasper. Every inch of the ceiling has something hanging from it, glass beads and glittering mobiles and wind chimes and tinkling bells. There are candles burning in coloured glass candlestick holders in the windows, the flames reflected in a thousand other shiny things. It figures, Rose thinks, that Pearl would live in such a place.
Indeed it does, for Pearl sparkles.
Rose’s friendship with Pearl, with its growth and difficulties, provides the heart of the novel, but many other aspects of life cluster around this theme: vicious small-town gossip plays its part, new feelings of sexuality and experimentation feature, and the roles played by older people in the lives of teens.
The school has a Harvest Festival where each girl is expected to have a special dress. And so, Rose begins her powerful but subtle relationship with Edie Baker, an old woman who is a dressmaker, and who gives Rose a valuable skill while telling her a fascinating history. At the same time, Pearl embarks on an adventure to do with her developing sexuality.
The author has woven three narratives together in this tale; the story of Rose and Pearl, the story of a detective seeking answers, and that of old Edie. These tales are cunningly presented as if nestled inside each other; each one revealed with delicate skill. And yes, the presence of a detective does mean the possibility of tragedy.
Although the way the stories complement each other is impressive, the landscape and the attendant weather patterns are written in a way that gives true delight. The landscape is like another character. And so is Edie’s decaying but amazing old house, stuffed with treasured items both from the forest around and other found objects. The descriptions of Edie’s wonderful interiors reminded me of the paintings of Margaret Olley. And they fit into a marvellously described landscape:
The same creek that runs through the Falconer cane bends backward on itself then, up towards the mountain from where it sprang. It crosses some way behind Edie’s strange house, where the back paddock gives way to bush. Rose can hear its rushing up behind the trees. She stares up at the mountain that fills the sky from the old woman’s back steps.
‘It’s a beauty, isn’t it?’ says Edie.
‘It’s okay,’ says Rose, even though there is something about it that makes her feel dizzy. She wonders what it would be like beneath its mysterious green pelt, which grows dark with the shadows of clouds and silvery in the sunshine, which releases startling sprays of parrots, which veils and unveils itself all day long. She imagines all the mossy groves and caves and hidden things.
The landscape is important throughout the novel. Not just for its beauty, but for the developing narrative.
This novel is marketed as young adult fiction. But, like Margo Lanagan’s Sea Hearts, it transcends labelling. My very adult book club loved it, and I think it a lyrical little gem.
Karen Foxlee The Midnight Dress, UQP, 2013, PB, 336pp, $29.95
Folly Gleeson was a lecturer in Communication Studies. At present she enjoys her book club and reading history and fiction.
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