Friday, October 22, 2021

The Dressmaker

The Dressmaker / Beryl Bainbridge
London: Abacus, 2010, c1973.
183 p.

I was drawn to this novel because I've always meant to read some Bainbridge, and also because of the title, obviously. But I was quite taken aback by the violence, squalor, and casual racism in this story.

Bainbridge is considered a classic writer, and this book was shortlisted for the Booker prize (what?) After reading it, I can't understand it. The story features two repressed women, Nellie and Margo, in 1940s Liverpool, who are raising their niece Rita, since her mother is dead and her father is weak and can't take care of a young girl. He shows up now and again to visit, but he's not a big part of Rita's emotional life. 

Rita knows that their life is grim and squalid but America, well, that's the glimmering land of plenty. When she's introduced to a GI she gloms right on, seeing her chance. But the relationship isn't really an unqualified success: she's naive and backward, he's both lecherous and unintelligent, and her aunts decide he's going to have to go. 

I was interested in seeing why this book was called The Dressmaker, and it's because Nellie is the neighbourhood seamstress -- there is description of the lovely fabrics she spreads out and cuts (the only beautiful things in the entire book), the dresses she makes for the wealthier girl down the road who is the lucky one with a charming GI, and also, some dressmaking shears play a role in the denouement of this story.

However, the characters are all awful, their living conditions are completely depressing, their personalities are all perverse, backstories dreadful, futures hopeless, and there is a shocking inclusion of racist language that persists throughout the book for no reason at all. This is written in the 70s but set in the 40s, and for a bit I was trying to figure out whether this element was meant to show the horrible nature of this family. But it seems that it is just there; was this normal in 1940s Liverpool? If so, was it necessary to use it in this book since there are many other indicators that this family is terrible? It keeps repeating due to the way it is used, and it's completely off-putting -- it's really awful and stained this story.

So despite my hopes for this slim book, I do not recommend. The only saving grace was that it was really short. 

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