This is another ‘catching-up’ post about a book I read a while ago. It’s one of my TBRs and also one of my 20 Books of Summer. It’s a novel with an under current of psychological suspense.
Wartime Liverpool is a place of ration books and jobs in munitions factories. Rita, living with her two aunts Nellie and Margo, is emotionally naïve and withdrawn. When she meets Ira, a GI, at a neighbour’s party she falls in love as much with the idea of life as a GI bride as with the man himself. But Nellie and Margo are not so blind …
I read The Dressmaker because I’ve enjoyed other books by Beryl Bainbridge. It’s a novella, really, as it’s only 160 pages. I love her style, clear, concise prose, with fully realised characters and descriptive settings. It was first published in 1973 – my copy is a Fontana edition published in 1985.
The Dressmaker was runner up for the 1973 Booker Prize and also for the Guardian Fiction Prize. The Sunday Times, is quoted on the back cover: ‘ Like the better Hitchcock films Miss Bainbridge suggests a claustrophobic horror … An impressive, haunting book.’
It’s a wartime story of life in Liverpool in 1944, where Rita, aged 17, is living with her two middle-aged aunts, Nellie (shown on the cover of my 1985 copy) and Margo, also called Marge. Her mother had died in childbirth, and she had lived with them as her father, their brother Jack, was unable to bring her up whilst single-handedly running his butcher’s shop. Rita, although she knows he is her father, calls him ‘Uncle Jack’. She is naive and innocent, and after meeting Ira she fantasises about being a GI bride, but her aunts are not taken in by him and view him in a very different light. She dreams about life in America as Ira’s wife:
After the war he would take her to the States, and they’d have a long black car and a grand piano with a bowl of flowers on the table. There’d be a house with a verandah and wooden steps, and she would run down them in a dress with lots of folds in the skirt and peep-toed shoes. Auntie Nellie would tell Mrs Mander how well-off they were, how Ira cared for her, the promotion he kept getting at work. (page 59)
The opening chapter signals with the word ‘afterwards‘ that something significant had happened, but with no indication of what it was. It left me wondering where this book was going. At first it seemed a rather mundane story of everyday life, but as the story played out I began to feel it was leading up to a tragedy – something terrible was coming towards this working class family.
And indeed it was – and it was shocking, particularly given the domestic setting. It’s only with the final denouement that the mystery hinted at in the opening chapter is revealed in a savage and violent climax. Even though I was expecting a tragedy the actual nature of it took me totally by surprise.