Wearing Paper Dresses (Anne Brinsden, Macmillan)
Life is tough in the Mallee in the 1950s, and when city sophisticate Elise, brimming with artistic and musical talent, is uprooted with her young children to her father-in-law’s wheat and sheep farm, the harsh landscape, lack of stimulation and hostile reception begin to stoke her ‘nerves’. She develops a glitter in her eye that means trouble. Her eccentricities—coffee in the land of tea, listening to plastic flowers and wearing a tea cosy on her head—are only the beginning. But this isn’t Elise’s story as much as it is her daughters’. In a small, gossipy country town where they are already outsiders, how do they cope? Through Elise’s daughter Marjorie we see what it’s like to live with a mother who is mentally unwell: the pain, confusion, unpredictability, responsibility, insecurity and secrecy. Evocatively wending its way through it all is the Mallee—its brutal heat, sudden changes and tough people, intimately portrayed with affection and loathing. Wearing Paper Dresses will no doubt draw parallels with Rosalie Ham’s The Dressmaker, and it should attract those who like to read about families, relationships and life on the land. This heartbreaking, melancholy and hopeful debut novel is full of inventive, haunting imagery and is beautifully written.
Joanne Shiells is a former book buyer and a former editor of Books+Publishing