Midnight Dress is a story about many things – friendship,
loss, secrets, betrayal – but most of all, love. The writing is emotive,
evocative, atmospheric. I couldn’t read Rose’s story with half my attention on
what I would say later in this review. I couldn’t help but become fully
immersed in the world of the story.
This is the story of a motherless girl
(Rose Lovell) and a fatherless girl (Pearl Kelly) who meet when Rose’s drifter
father Patrick decides to stop in a small Northern Queensland town. Rose is, at
first, reluctant to attend school. She is also reluctant to become friends with
Pearl – a friendship that begins pessimistically, based on a snap decision Rose
makes on the first day she attends Lenora High.
French?” asks Pearl. “French,” says Rose. Pearl even asks Rose later in the
book – “What if you had chosen Geography?”
It’s sugarcane country, and the annual
Harvest Parade (something else Rose would much rather avoid) is the celebration
that the story builds towards. However, as the reader, you know in advance that
this won’t be all celebration, as right from the beginning you are privy to
pieces of the later parts of this story. The tragedy that unfolds alongside the
more hopeful story of Rose and Pearl’s growing friendship has your mind already
searching the text for the clues that will solve the crime.
I was amazed by how well the unusual
structure of this story worked. At first I found it a little odd that so much
of what’s to come is divulged to the reader at the beginning of each chapter. Half
to a few pages of italicized text that clearly begins somewhere near the end
and outcome of the story, creating tension, building backwards chapter by
chapter, until it meets up with the forward story and propels you towards an
ending that has become inevitable.
The first sentence of the first chapter is “Will you forgive me if I tell you the
These chapter prologues (for want of a
better description) are told from the POV of the all-seeing, all-knowing
omnipotent narrator – in this case the author herself. Author intrusion doesn’t
usually work, but for this story, even though – or more likely because – the
structure is so unique, it works. Even so, at one point early on I wondered if
I should skip them and just read the story through to the end. I wondered if
that was a choice the author intended by structuring the novel in this way. I wondered
if it would make a difference to the reading experience.
The other star of this story is Edie. The
girls all need dresses for the Harvest Parade. Most girls travel into the city
to get their gowns, in the hope of being chosen to be one of seven Harvest
Princesses, but Rose has neither the money nor the inclination. She is told of
a local dressmaker who may be able to help her with her dress. This is Edie, an
elderly woman living a lonely life as an outcast – someone to be whispered
about in the streets by the locals. Edie is different and we all know that
society is intolerant and suspicious of difference, and these feelings are even
more pronounced in a small town setting.
Edie’s history – a love story of sorts – is
woven through the narrative during Rose’s visits. The making, by hand, of the
Midnight Dress becomes a kind of meditative therapy. Edie becomes ‘mentor’, and
Rose changes – becomes smoother, less sharp-edged – as the dress takes shape.
Edie lives in squalor, yet seems happy surrounded by her ‘things’. She feels
safe with the mountains and rainforest at her back. This is her home – however
dysfunctional. She has grown roots here.
Edie’s house became, for me, a character in
its own right. It was a living, breathing thing that I could picture in my mind
as though I was right there looking at it, walking through it – which would be difficult
with all of Edie’s things cluttering it up. The quality of the description of
this relic of a house only proves how fully the author imagined it – with all of her senses. Edie tells Rose of
the ‘spell’ the rainforest cast over herself and her mother; the same spell
that Rose inevitably falls under. The same type of spell is cast by this
Foxlee masterfully gathers the threads of
her story together to give the reader an ending that may not be unexpected yet
is still extremely satisfying. Rose loved words – collected them in her green
notebook. Foxlee loves words and has a knack for using the perfect one. I gave The Midnight Dress 5 stars on
‘Goodreads’ and I believe it deserves every one of those stars. I highly
recommend this book.