Murder mystery stitched into coming-of-age tale
The Midnight Dress
By Karen Foxlee UQP, 336pp, $29.95
KAREN Foxlee’s 2007 debut novel, The Anatomy of Wings, won acclaim and awards. The Queensland writer’s follow-up, The Midnight Dress, a crossover novel aimed at adults and young adults, far surpasses it. Tension and atmosphere simmer exquisitely in this tale of a teenage girl’s murder.
Rose Lovell has never had a home. She travels with her binge-drinking father, living in caravan parks across the country. She is thin and constrains her flamboyant red curls with pins and black hair colouring.
When she arrives at Leonora State High School in far north Queensland, preparation for the Harvest Parade, where all the girls need a new dress to wear for the float and the crowning of harvest queen and princesses, is under way. Rose is befriended by kind and beautiful Pearl Kelly, who sees only goodness in people and who suggests Rose ask enigmatic seamstress Edith Baker to make her dress.
Edie is a credible old-woman character, but is also a new literary creation: an Australian ‘‘ wise-woman’’, not overtly derived from myth or fairytale but from the rainforest and fabric. Even though we learn Edie’s story, especially the joyous quicksilver account of her mother sewing a hidden assignation letter into her future husband’s new suit pocket, Edie retains an aura of intangible, benign mystery.
Like her own mother, Edie is drawn to the ineffable rainforest, its sanctuary and voice. The rainforest nurtures and provides gifts of exotic fruit and nuts: blue quandongs, rose walnuts, the topaz tamarind and porcelain fruit. The rainforest is where Edie and her mother built a house high in the trees at Weeping Rock but, after becoming a haven for Rose, it eventually becomes a place of betrayal.
As Rose and Edie discover and create Rose’s midnight dress, her changing appearance reflects her growing contentment and strength from climbing the mountain and being nourished by people and the land.
Foxlee ingrains the shadow of murder into her storylines. Very early in the book we are subtly forewarned that the wearer is destined for another plane: ‘‘. . . the dress is a magical thing, it makes her look so heavenly.’’ At the harvest festival the girls must walk down the catwalk in their pretty dresses.
‘‘ One of the girls is chosen [as a harvest queen or princess]. And sacrificed,’’ says Rose.
The structure also enhances the mystery. In italics at the beginning of each chapter an omniscient narrator describes the murder and its investigation. This allows a privileged view into scenes that need careful, evasive telling before ultimately they merge in time with the major narrative.
Although some fairytale elements are included, such as Rose’s deep sleep for three days before the parade, The Midnight Dress is set in quite recent history. The Chernobyl nuclear disaster becomes a magnified foreboding of death as well as a link with Pearl’s unknown Russian father. Pearl is learning Russian and sending letters to men with his surname. Rose also loves writing. The author’s own writing avoids abstruse words but creates a sensory picture of a secretive, lush paradise threatened by a serpent.