Rainforest, vintage lace, and mystery

Queensland writer Karen Foxlee’s novel The Midnight Dress enfolded me into its world more than any book I’ve read for years. The story takes place in the tiny town of Leonora which lies between tropical bays and a mountain cloaked in rainforest. When fifteen-year-old Rose Lovell arrives in town with her itinerant alcoholic father, she is still grieving for her barely-remembered mother who has drowned. Perpetual outsiders, they settle into the Paradise caravan park.

But when Rose is befriended by pretty Pearl Kelly, she discovers the town is on the brink of its Harvest Festival. Their tradition is that all the teenage girls in town, wearing their loveliest dresses, must parade on floats through the streets so that a Harvest Queen may be chosen. Hiding her hurts behind her armour of Goth black, Rose is not a girl who usually seeks party frocks, but Pearl draws her in. Rose finds a dressmaker, an eccentric old woman named Edie Baker, who lives in a sagging, rambling old house on the edge of the rainforest. Rose has no money so Edie offers her a free choice of the ancient fabrics stored amongst the shambles of her hoardings. But Rose will not choose to create a conventional dress for a young girl. The dress will be fashioned of indigo silk taffeta and vintage black lace and beads. It will be a midnight dress.

And Edie will relate her parents’ long-ago love story as she teaches Rose to make the pattern and stitch the fabric by hand. Edie tells of a cabin built by her father high on the wild mountain which looms next to her house. The hut was a love gift for her mother. Through the story Rose becomes drawn to explore the rainforest world. She scrambles upwards through lianas and braves rocks over racing streams to find the decaying hut. It becomes a refuge, a place of love; the home she never had. Karen Foxlee takes us on a sensory journey through the rainforest so powerfully that, to me, it almost becomes a character in the book – moss, ferns, strangler figs, dim gullies full of boulders, screeching birds and ‘the dank green breath of the mountain.’ It is the monsoon season and birds and plants are bursting with vitality. This force of nature seems to seep into the town – ‘all through the wet season girls dream a plumage of dresses.’ Sleazy older men flirt with teenage girls who flaunt their new-found sexuality.

I have written little more than the set-up for the main plot. I will not commit the reviewer’s direst sin of giving away details of the ongoing story. But, from the start, there is a dark tension which I have tried to avoid even hinting at. I’m not a fan of the mystery novel in general, but this one is character-driven and also a book set in a wild place which is vividly portrayed. It held me in its grip to the end.