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Review: Wearing Paper Dresses by Anne Brinsden

on November 6, 2019

Wearing Paper Dresses 
Anne Brinsden
Pan Macmillan AUS
2019, 384p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

You can talk about living in the Mallee. And you can talk about a Mallee tree. And you can talk about the Mallee itself: a land and a place full of red sand and short stubby trees. Silent skies. The undulating scorch of summer plains. Quiet, on the surface of things.

But Elise wasn’t from the Mallee, and she knew nothing of its ways.

Discover the world of a small homestead perched on the sunburnt farmland of northern Victoria. Meet Elise, whose urbane 1950s glamour is rudely transplanted to the pragmatic red soil of the Mallee when her husband returns to work the family farm. But you cannot uproot a plant and expect it to thrive. And so it is with Elise. Her meringues don’t impress the shearers, the locals scoff at her Paris fashions, her husband works all day in the back paddock, and the drought kills everything but the geraniums she despises.

As their mother withdraws more and more into herself, her spirited, tearaway daughters, Marjorie and Ruby, wild as weeds, are left to raise themselves as best they can. Until tragedy strikes, and Marjorie flees to the city determined to leave her family behind. And there she stays, leading a very different life, until the boy she loves draws her back to the land she can’t forget…

This is a bit of a tough one, in terms of trying to articulate how I felt about it. I love the cover – it’s incredibly detailed and eye catching. I’ve never read any Rosalie Ham, so the comparisons weren’t a draw for me. I liked the sound of reading about the Mallee and the tough farming community that populated it. I had a feeling this wasn’t going to be an easy sort of read but it ended up being quite a bit more difficult than I anticipated.

It begins with the story of Bill and his wife Elise. Bill had left his family farm deep in the Mallee in northern Victoria to work in Melbourne and send money back to his parents, struggling to keep the farm afloat. Elise is a city girl and they meet, marry and welcome their two girls living in the city as well. But then Bill’s mother dies and Bill’s father, the taciturn ‘Pa’, summons him back to the family farm to help out. There’s no one else after all – Bill’s two sisters are married to farmers with their own properties, and anyway they’re women. Everyone knows that farming is man’s work. So Bill takes his wife and two daughters up to the Mallee where Elise struggles to be accepted by the local women, who are deeply suspicious of her different ways. She doesn’t know how to cook the hearty meals and snacks the shearers want, she doesn’t know the right sort of food when asked to ‘bring a plate’. The women are confused by her gloves, make up and dressy appearance. Her French meringues are met with disdain and disbelief. Elise spirals downwards into a depression, the harsh landscape of the Mallee sucking the life out of her. For Rose and Marjorie, Bill and Elise’s two daughters, Elise’s fragile nerves become something to not only navigate with delicacy at home but also something that local kids use as bullying tools.

On one hand, this is a very in depth look at what I think it must’ve been like to have a mental illness at a time when it was not particularly well understood and also in a location where isolation and ostracisation were rampant. Elise is deeply snubbed by local women, one even going out of her way to constantly berate and belittle her, telling her bluntly to her face that she doesn’t fit in or belong here. Elise is like the flowers she so desperately wants to grow, suffocating and dying in the scorching and unforgiving landscape. And Bill, her husband is so infuriating it hurts. Especially late in the book, when a terrible tragedy strikes that he immediately lays blame for. So much of Elise’s illness management falls on her two young daughters, who are pre-teens and teens during the bad times, as Elise worsens. A lot of the book is from Marjorie’s point of view and she doesn’t have the gentle knack of placating Elise and letting things slide by. Marjorie is more combative and she often finds herself on the receiving end of Elise’s mood swings, which bring scorn and criticism. This makes Marjorie even more belligerent and it turns into a cycle.

The pressure placed upon Rose and Marjorie (and Marjorie alone after Rose leaves for teachers college) is immense. They are two young girls and then teenagers, who don’t really know what they’re dealing with. Or why it’s happening. They have little in the way of support, given the way the locals treat Elise and the fact that the two men in their lives mostly seem to feel as though this is “women’s business” of fragile nerves and eventually Elise will be fine. I didn’t really like the character of Pa for a lot of the book – he’s a typical sexist traditionalist. But he actually kind of grew on me throughout the story and it seemed as though in the end, he was doing better at trying to understand and help Elise than her own husband was. Pa cares for his two granddaughters in the best way that he can when Elise is unable to, making Marjorie breakfast (even though he’s typically useless), keeping her out of the hot sun when she’d have waited there all day for Elise when she was in one of her manic phases, just generally trying to make sure life kept going even though it wasn’t his forte. Bill however, gave me the irrits especially at the end. His cruel, thoughtless words had such severe consequences and it didn’t even seem like he recognised this, or was sorry for it. Especially because it wasn’t true and what happened was a product of his own negligence and ignorance. He may not have known what to do, and he wouldn’t have been alone. But dumping this on his own children, saying it was their ‘job’ to look after their mother, was about the worst thing he could’ve done in terms of helping basically anyone in this equation.

For the first part of the book, I was mostly ambivalent about it but I ended up with a lot of anger and sadness towards Marjorie and Rose towards the end. I also really felt that the wider community were portrayed like mostly a bunch of jerks and then decided to be nice at the end and everyone felt they should be thanked for basically acting like actual decent human beings. If someone had literally ostracised and cruelly baited a family member of mine, one where it was quite obvious they were in a struggling situation as well and then decided like 10+ years later they might do one nice thing for them because they feel differently now, my overwhelming response wouldn’t be one of gratitude….


Book #181 of 2019

Wearing Paper Dresses is the 69th novel read for The Australian Women Writers Challenge 2019. Just 11 titles to go and I’ll complete my goal.

5 responses to “Review: Wearing Paper Dresses by Anne Brinsden

  1. Sabby Fox says:

    This cover is so cute! But as cute as it is, I know from the sound of it it would make me too upset to be able to enjoy it. Thanks for your in depth review!

    • The cover is stunning! But yes, for me it did get very difficult to read for a couple of reasons. It’s the sort of book where you need to be in the mindframe to tackle it, to know what it’s going to serve up and be ready to deal with it, for me.

  2. I have this for review but I have been very hesitant to read it. Mothers with mental illnesses that their daughters end up managing is a trigger for me because it was my actual adolescent and teenage life. I’m thinking it’s going to be too much.

    • I’m sorry that was a reality for you. I honestly think that avoiding it might be a good option because even I found it quite upsetting and frustrating and I ended up feeling so angry for the two children and how much responsibility was placed on them. I can only imagine that will be so much worse for someone who has actually lived this sort of thing.

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