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Lost in the forest.

March 3, 2013

Many women are familiar with the search for the perfect dress; but there’s no dress quite like the one Rose Lovell has made for her in award-winning Australian author Karen Foxlee’s second novel, The Midnight Dress. It’s a dark and enchanting coming-of-age story with a subtle fable-like feel and a lingering undertone of mystery.

Fifteen-year-old Rose and her alcoholic father are drifters, so when they arrive in Leonora, a small North Queensland sugarcane town, Rose isn’t expecting to stay long. Thanks to her father’s itinerant ways, Rose is cynical beyond her years, and generally expects disappointment. But when she enrols in the local high school, she’s powerless to resist the infectious friendliness of Pearl Kelly, who is at once pretty, popular, and genuinely kind.

Pearl convinces Rose that she must take part in the town’s annual Harvest Parade, an event for which all the local girls spend months searching for the perfect dress. For Rose, who is committed to wearing entirely black and furiously pinning down her unruly red curls, the very idea of the Harvest Parade is beyond ridiculous—’I’m not wearing any crummy dress’, she tells Pearl. But things begin to change—slowly, ineffably—when Pearl suggests that Rose visit Edie Baker, an old seamstress living in a ramshackle house at the foot of the town’s imposing forested mountain. There’s something oddly beguiling about Edie and her rooms full of moulding fabric bolts and moth-eaten dresses; Rose begins visiting every week, helping Edie make her a midnight blue dress and listening to the old woman’s stories of love and mystery.

The book is cleverly split into two timeframes: at the novel’s start, we learn of the disappearance of a girl in a midnight dress on the eve of the town’s Harvest Parade; from there, we move ever so slightly back in time to meet Rose when she arrives in town. Foxlee’s past and future narratives gradually catch up to one another—at the start of each chapter, we’re given another instalment in the search for the missing girl; in the meantime, the novel’s central storyline progresses towards the Harvest Parade, creating a deepening sense of intrigue and foreboding.

Despite its gothic overtones, there’s a wry humour to Foxlee’s work that brings her characters to vivid life; as in her 2008 debut, The Anatomy of Wings, she’s adept at capturing the difficulties and frustrations of adolescence with honesty and wit. Taciturn Rose, who never expected to make a friend in her temporary new home, is bewildered by Pearl’s unerring effervescence–she never stops talking, her thoughts and desires spilling forth in stark contrast to Rose’s tight-lipped emotional caution. ‘I’d love to be marooned and just drink coconut milk and wear a grass skirt’, Pearl gushes. ‘I can’t wait to travel. I’m going to go away as soon as school is over. I’m going to Russia, first stop, that’s where my father came from. No kidding. I never met him. Not yet. I’m the result of a brief love affair. My father, he’ll recognise me straight away. We’ll be in this crowded railway station. He’ll put out his arms to me. He’ll smell like snow and pine cones.’

Still, there is a profound sadness at the novel’s core: each central character experiences a kind of loss or mourning, from Rose’s fading memories of her mother, and deep, unexpressed need for a home, to Pearl’s search for her father (knowing that her father’s surname was Orlov, she intends to write to every single Orlov in the Russian phone book in an attempt to locate the correct one). Edie, too, who shares the story of her parents’ tragic marriage with Rose, is viewed with suspicion by many of the locals for her isolated existence; she is a permanent outsider, though it’s a role she ultimately seems to embrace.

The implications of all this gradually become sharper as the mystery unfolds—loss is at the novel’s core, but as we come to understand the story of the girl in the midnight dress, it appears that not all forms of loss are entirely tragic; some are almost necessary, an ultimate means of escape for those who never fit in and perhaps were never intended to.

The Midnight Dress, much like The Anatomy of Wings, is another tale of what lies beneath the surface of apparently ordinary small town lives, often quietly haunted by secrets and dreams that they would never dare express. Foxlee evocatively conveys Leonora’s provincial dullness (‘isn’t it tres boring here?’ Pearl says despairingly to Rose as they wander down Main Street, in which ‘there’s nothing, a few parked cars, four shops, a handful of pubs’), while at the same time creating a beguiling mythical atmosphere. With its steamy heat and relentless rain, and the ‘mysterious green pelt’ and ‘mossy groves and caves and hidden things’ of the imposing mountain that overlooks it, Leonora is as much a place of mystery and magic as any enchanted forest from a childhood book of fairy tales.

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