Recently I read 'The Midnight Dress' by Karen Foxlee. It was published in 2013 by QUP. I picked this book up at the library and chose it because it was about sewing, and I love to read Australian stories. It's set in tropical FNQ (that's Far North Queensland). The setting of small town, clear turquoise sea with white beaches, giant mountain with lush vegetation and streams that turn quickly into torrents, soggy cane fields and clunking cane trains plays an enormous part in the story.
A teenage girl and her father turn up and park their caravan at the "Paradise" caravan park. The girl, Rose, enrols at the local high school and soon makes friends with Pearl. Pearl is a very good friend to the motherless Rose, perhaps her only friend ever, and is a very likeable character whose main fault is that she is too good and trusts too much.
There are several stories woven through the novel. Rose needs a dress for the town's annual harvest parade so she finds a local dressmaker living in a tumbledown house at the foot of the mountain. This little old lady, Edie, tells Rose of her family history and teaches her to sew.
Rose's father is an alcoholic and part of the story is about how she reacts and deals with this problem.
Pearl has never known her father but is on a quest to meet him, and meanwhile has taken a fancy to a man old enough to be her father who keeps her supplied with trashy romance novels at the local book exchange.
Each chapter starts with a flashback - or a flash forward, if that's a thing. A narrator outside of the story is relating the tale of the disappearance of a girl on the night of the harvest parade. It is unclear at the start who the girl is and what the outcome is of the situation, but more clues come to light as the story unfolds, little by little, at the start of each chapter.
The author has done a fantastic job of weaving the threads of the plot together. I loved the scenes where the old lady was teaching the teenager the art of dressmaking and telling the story of her life in the town. The setting was described in vivid detail so I could imagine I was there, although I've never been further north than Brisbane in real life.
Here's a snippet
"Each year the wet season brings the monsoon, a vast system of rain, continent sized. The heat at the heart of the land, the dry red centre, pulls this cloud down over the top end like a shroud. Sensing its arrival the green ants build their nests and squeeze out their eggs. The lowland forest trees burst into flower, the Leichhardt pine decorates itself with pom-poms, and everywhere there is the bright aching red of the native apple. Rat-Kangaroos feast on Davidson's plumps and woompoo pigeons eat the lily pilly seeds and poop them down onto the forest floor, where they will begin to grow again.
All this does not change.
It is the preordained nature of things.
And in the schoolyard at Leonora High, it is exactly the same.
All through the wet season girls dream a plumage of dresses.....(p73)
And another, describing the sea
Rose gets out of bed, brushes her teeth at the tiny sink, dresses, walks down to the beach. The sea is almost still, reflecting the clouds. The soldier crabs have left their sand jewellery on the shore. Hers are the first footprints, she looks back at the as she walks toward the rocks to climb to her secret cove. (p126)
And describing some trees on the mountain
Upward, is what Rose Lovell says to herself. Upward. One foot in front of the other. She wishes there were rocks, not these leaves, this whispering unsettling carpet of leaves. The rose gums she finds then: a stand of them, seven or eight, so giant that she forgets to breathe. They wear russet-red skirts at their bases, and their skin is the colour of quartz.
'There you are,' she says, looking up, unable to see where they end.
She stands for a long time there, listening to the sound of falling water.
I enjoyed reading this book. It was suspenseful and the drip feed of clues made me want to read quickly to the end. I loved the parts about dressmaking, and how Edie could see the dress the fabric needs to be before she even starts drafting the pattern. I wanted Rose to be alright in the end and to be friends with Pearl when they were both old ladies like Edie, but of course that wasn't to be.
It was a sad story, but still an enjoyable read. It reminded me of Anita Shreve in that regard, so if you like those books you'd probably like this one too. It also reminded me of another Aussie author, Sonia Hartnett, in the way that it has a spooky feeling to it.
It would be suitable for young readers aged 15 or so up, it does have themes of murder and abuse with the disappearance of the girl alluded to throughout the story, and a few F bombs, so I give it an M rating for mature audiences
Here's a link to the publisher's details
I am certainly going to be reading her other books. Five stars.
UPDATE I was checking out this author on good reads and I saw a review she'd written on 'the Nargun and the stars', by Patricia Wrightson. Oddly enough this book came to mind while I was reading the Midnight Dress, which also stars a big brooding slightly mystical rock. 'The Nargun and the Stars' has always been one of my favourites and you should check it out if you're in any way interested in great Australian stories for children.