ECHO FROM THE PAST

AN AU­THOR WITH A LOVE OF ALL THINGS VINTAGE CRAFTS A MODERN TALE ABOUT THE REDEMPTIVE POWER OF THE PAST

The Gympie Times - - WEEKEND | BOOK CLUB - WORDS: DENISE RAWARD

Dress­ing the Dearloves Kelly Doust HARPERCOLLINS

It’s no sur­prise Syd­ney au­thor Kelly Doust is fas­ci­nated with the sto­ries be­hind old things. Her sec­ond fic­tion novel Dress­ing

the Dearloves ex­plores an old fam­ily, a crum­bling man­sion and vintage cloth­ing, pro­vid­ing a rich back­drop for a story that’s ul­ti­mately about the no­tion of suc­cess and fail­ure. The hero­ine Sylvie Dearlove re­turns home to the fam­ily es­tate in Eng­land, shrouded in the shame and hu­mil­i­a­tion of her failed fash­ion la­bel in New York.

There she finds her par­ents pre­par­ing their once grand Som­er­set coun­try house for sale, no longer able to af­ford the cost of main­tain­ing it.

“I saw a BBC doc­u­men­tary on fam­i­lies in Eng­land liv­ing in two rooms of a 100 room house — peo­ple liv­ing in poverty in these grand old homes,” Kelly says. “The idea be­hind the novel re­ally came from there.”

It’s also no sur­prise that Kelly grew up in old houses her­self. Her English father made a liv­ing from buy­ing old prop­er­ties, do­ing them up and re­selling them be­fore mov­ing on to his next project.

The fam­ily once lived in a build­ing that was one of the first hos­pi­tals in Bal­main. When they ex­ca­vated the back­yard, they found old sur­gi­cal in­stru­ments and pros­thet­ics.

“I guess I’ve al­ways been pre­oc­cu­pied by old things,” Kelly says. “I started vintage shop­ping in my teens and have been col­lect­ing vintage cloth­ing ever since.”

She says there’s a healthy dash of wish ful­fil­ment when her hero­ine Sylvie re­vis­its the trunks of exquisite clothes and ac­ces­sories the Dearlove women have ac­cu­mu­lated in the at­tic for gen­er­a­tions.

“I have dreams about com­ing across amaz­ing old pieces like those,” Kelly laughs. “I ac­tu­ally went back and cut a lot of the fash­ion de­tail out of the novel but it was such fun to write about.”

Kelly be­gan her ca­reer writ­ing ar­ti­cles and non­fic­tion books about craft and vintage cloth­ing. Her mem­oir A Life in Frocks isa col­lec­tion of es­says on the place of fash­ion and its mean­ing in our lives.

The jump to fic­tion was “like learn­ing to write all over again,” she says, but it gave her more scope to cre­ate her own sto­ries be­hind the vintage trea­sures that in­evitably found their way into her nov­els. Her first, Pre­cious

Things, had as its cen­tre­piece a vintage beaded col­lar; her sec­ond novel con­tains a ver­i­ta­ble trea­sure trove of fash­ion his­tory.

“WHEN I SEE A VINTAGE PIECE, I AL­WAYS WON­DER WHAT THE STORY BE­HIND IT IS. WERE THEY WEAR­ING IT WHEN SOME­THING MOMENTOUS HAP­PENED IN HIS­TORY?”

“When I see a vintage piece, I al­ways won­der what the story be­hind it is,” she says. “Some­times it’s in mint con­di­tion and I won­der where did they wear that — was it a cock­tail party? Were they wear­ing it when some­thing momentous hap­pened in his­tory? I’ve tried to weave that into my fic­tion.”

But Dress­ing the Dearloves is per­haps less con­cerned with fash­ion froufrou than the com­plex­i­ties of what con­sti­tutes suc­cess and fail­ure. “It’s an in­ter­est­ing topic to ex­plore, that whole area and what it re­ally means in this modern age of so­cial me­dia,” Kelly says.

“The fig­ures show there’s grow­ing lone­li­ness and men­tal health is­sues among young peo­ple. ‘Com­par­i­son syn­drome’ is re­ally un­der­min­ing. It was also in­ter­est­ing to ex­plore that feel­ing of shame. It’s such a knotty emo­tion to ex­plore but we all have those emo­tions. We all ex­pe­ri­ence that.”

Kelly says she didn’t want Sylvie to be “feck­less and pre­dictable” and it’s re­fresh­ing to find a hero­ine wrestling with flaws and chal­lenges out­side the realms of genre fic­tion’s stereo­typ­i­cal “strong women”.

But there is one trope that lends a de­li­cious plot twist: the dis­cov­ery of a fam­ily se­cret. “I love the sto­ry­telling de­vice of a se­cret that readers might be aware of that the char­ac­ters aren’t,” Kelly says.

“I also find mother/daugh­ter re­la­tion­ships quite fas­ci­nat­ing and here there is Sylvie’s grand­mother and great-grand­mother as well.

“I wanted to show the things that we’ve been told — or that we tell our­selves, the fam­ily nar­ra­tive, can shape the way we are and the way we see our­selves and how shift­ing those un­truths can lead to an un­cov­er­ing of one­self.”

Kelly, who works in book pub­lish­ing, says she set out to cre­ate some en­joy­able es­capism that has a fa­mil­iar vibe to it but with char­ac­ters who are more real.

“I think it makes it trick­ier to write a book when you work in pub­lish­ing,” she says.

“I had to have my au­thor hat on; the pub­lisher hat is too clin­i­cal when you’re try­ing to be cre­ative and write.”

Dress­ing the Dearloves no doubt ticks more than a few pub­lisher boxes but, in the end, is a sat­is­fy­ing tale of fam­ily, friend­ships and re­demp­tion with a splash more depth than can rea­son­ably be ex­pected from nov­els with hot pink cov­ers.

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