Mur­der mys­tery stitched into coming-of-age tale

The Mid­night Dress

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Joy Lawn

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.

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