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Monday, February 10, 2020

Review: Wearing Paper Dresses

Title: Wearing Paper Dresses
Author: Anne Brinsden
Publisher: 24th September 2019 by Pan Macmillan Australia
Pages: 312 pages
How I Read It: ARC book
Genre: historical fiction, cultural-Australia
My Rating: 3.5 crowns


You can talk about living in the Mallee. And you can talk about a Mallee tree. And you can talk about the Mallee itself: a land and a place full of red sand and short stubby trees. Silent skies. The undulating scorch of summer plains. Quiet, on the surface of things.
But Elise wasn't from the Mallee, and she knew nothing of its ways.
Discover the world of a small homestead perched on the sunburnt farmland of northern Victoria. Meet Elise, whose urbane 1950s glamour is rudely transplanted to the pragmatic red soil of the Mallee when her husband returns to work the family farm. But you cannot uproot a plant and expect it to thrive. And so it is with Elise. Her meringues don't impress the shearers, the locals scoff at her Paris fashions, her husband works all day in the back paddock, and the drought kills everything but the geraniums she despises.
As their mother withdraws more and more into herself, her spirited, tearaway daughters, Marjorie and Ruby, wild as weeds, are left to raise themselves as best they can. Until tragedy strikes, and Marjorie flees to the city determined to leave her family behind. And there she stays, leading a very different life, until the boy she loves draws her back to the land she can't forget...

My Thoughts

Wearing Paper Dresses is a poetically written with a heartbreakingly sad story, surrounding battles with mental illness for one struggling family located in the harsh Australian Mallee region. Despite the seriousness of the topic and consequences, the author ensures to provide glimmers of hope to the reader and the connections of the ‘paper dresses’ is both artful and inspired. 

‘The two girls gawked at the delicate papery creation floating on its humble wire hanger. ‘It’s beautiful,’ breathed Ruby. ‘Where did you get all the paper?’ asked Marjorie. ‘It’s crepe paper. It is very inexpensive,’ said Elise. ‘It’s a dress made out of paper,’ said Marjorie redundantly. Nodding at the wonder of it. ‘Yes, it is.’ Elise smiled.’

Probably the best thing about this book for me, was the lyrical and poetic use of personification of the environment itself. It is quite remarkable and makes the land itself a bonafide character. Through this prose the author was able to craftily communicate many profound thoughts and ideas. Known for its harsh environment, the Mallee region speaks to the reader through everything from the trees to the weather. 

‘The Mallee is quiet on the surface of things in its own arid way, and seemingly insipid in its semi-desertness. With its emaciated trees, its restless shifting sand, its spear grass, its prickles and its prickle bushes. But it watches. Waiting for a chance to get rid of you. Clear off, you lot, it says. Go back where you came from. There are too many of you here already! There is no permanent fresh water in the Mallee. The Mallee won’t allow it.’

At its heart this is a troubled story with not only the struggles of mental illness for an individual but also the impact on those living around the inflicted person. The fallout from this illness is a tragedy for many concerned,  within the community but particularly the immediate family. Far from being a happy story, it is confronting when seen through the eyes of one of the troubled daughters. At times, I struggled, not so much with the theme but the repetitiveness of thoughts and feelings, but again, this may have been a strategy in writing about such a thing. 

‘Marjorie realised a whole trainload of her dead and buried past was starting to derail right now. Wheat trucks full of it. Right in front of her. She watched the train wreck from the inside of her eyes as she was grabbed and thrown, like a bale of hay off the back of a ute. As her dead and buried stuff spilt out in every direction there in her paper castle.’

All up this is a poignant tale with a message to share when it comes to mental breakdowns. Combine that with the external challenges of living in such a harsh and unforgiving land and you have quite a remarkable story.  

‘Elise sang. And the Mallee sand and the Mallee sky listened and acknowledged this talent–strange and alien to it, but it bent its knee at talent nonetheless. Those stars, enduring in their eternal desert landscape scrutiny, spangled–just for Elise. Elise sang. And she left those people believing in magic. She left them all in no doubt about it.’

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher and provided through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.

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