I just finished reading The Dressmaker by Australian author Rosalie Ham (“Soon to be a major motion picture”). I picked it up off the new book shelf in the library when the jacket description caught my attention and the first paragraph showed a nice command of language:
Travellers crossing the wheat-yellow plains to Dungatar would first notice a dark blot shimmering at the edge of the flatness. Further down the asphalt, the shape would emerge as a hill. On top of The Hill sat a shabby brown weatherboard, leaning provocatively on the grassy curve. It looked as if it was about to careen down but was roped to a solid chimney by thick-limbed wisteria.
A glance at the reviews on goodreads.com indicates a range of reactions to the novel, from glowing praise to some serious criticism. My reaction, when I finished the book, was to wonder what exactly was the author’s vision—does the novel have a unifying vision?
The jacket blurb calls it “A darkly satirical novel of love, revenge, and 1950s haute couture.”
While there is, indeed, serious revenge in the story, there is precious little love. And, fundamentally, the novel is not satirical.
The beginning of the novel presents something closer to slapstick than satire. The town chemist (pharmacist) suffers from advanced Parkinson’s, and the author presents what to me was a good-humored, sympathetic but funny account of him stumbling about his apothecary (with all the cabinet windows protected against his smashing them), and of his assistant Nancy giving him a shove to get him started across the street to his house.
Also quite humorous is the town constable, Sergeant Farrat, who grew up above a dressmaker’s shop. He sews fancy women’s clothes and secretly wears them at home and when on vacation in Melbourne.
The satire comes later, as Ham depicts the foolishness of the villagers who take on airs as they wear their new fashions, designed and sewn by Tilly, the woman they despise and even hate.
But, in the end, the book is not satire, not even “dark satire,” if that’s in fact a special type of satire. For more basic than the slapstick and the satire is a grim story of hate, rejection, and revenge. The vision the author presents does not fit well, I believe, with satire. For satire is ultimately idealistic.
Whether it’s Swift, Pratchett, or today’s newspaper cartoonist, satire is used because the author believes humans are capable of better and hopes the magnifying mirror of satire can make people better. Or, at least, make people aware that they or others are falling short of what they could be. Thus, Ham’s exaggerated depiction of her villagers’ behavior give us some insight into how silly it is to think that fancy dresses make us fancier people.
But in the end the novel fails to maintain the idealistic or hopeful stance underlying satire. In the end there are meaningless deaths and no redemption of the villagers’ evil. Just Tilly’s revenge and no “happy ending.”
So this is my hypothesis about why the book confused me. Ham has a bunch of great ideas, much humorous insight, an interesting plot (though it doesn’t entirely hang together), and a mastery of language. But, by imposing slapstick and satire on the dark story, the novel falls short of presenting a clear or unified vision of life.
What do you think? Is satire ultimately idealistic?