Wearing paper dresses by Anne Brinsden
Macmillan, 2019. ISBN: 9781760784850.
(Age: Adult - Adolescent) Highly recommended. This stunning work, a story of love and terrible loss, and of the struggle to survive, tells the story of a family who live in on a farm in the Mallee in the 1950s. The narrative is set in this dry, hard country of northern Victoria, an area that is so often starved for rain, where people, Brinsden writes, found survival 'precarious'. When his wife dies, Pa asks his son and family to move back to the family farm. While this region of Australia experiences frequent droughts, and the earth is difficult to farm, Bill is determined to help his father. It is clear from the start of the story that his wife, Elise, is not at ease, and her mental state fluctuates wildly, yet she loves her family and tries to understand the culture of the countryside. She is angry with the girls, Marjorie and Ruby, whom she sees as becoming rough and unladylike. Yet we are positioned to see that her struggle to fit in, to understand the alien culture, is clearly weakening her mind.
Told from the point of view of Marjorie, one of the daughters, the narrative creates a world of growing stress, as the family struggle with the climate, the terrible lack of water, and the tempestuous nature of the mother's illness. Yet creating and wearing paper dresses (albeit extraordinarily beautiful ones), even planting plastic flowers and fake greenery so that at least there is some colour in the garden, only places her in the 'odd' basket where the locals are concerned.
We cannot help but be completely drawn into the tragic world of this family and its heart-rending times, the disasters and the recovery. When Brinsden writes of the wind, the 'willy-willy feeding on itself', lurching and swaying in the dust and the heat, crazy and wild and ruinous and beautiful', her words so reflect so aptly both the weather and Elise. Her word choice elicits our empathy and indeed a sense of deep sadness for this family and the world of the text. She stirs the soul, lifts the emotions and the spirit, yet enables us to empathise, to feel a deep sense of the heartbreak of the place and people, and of the triumph of surviving.
Utterly captivating, lyrical and tender, this is storytelling at its best, and this book is an exciting new narrative that depicts Australia and its changing culture. Suitable for adolescent and adult reading.