Anne Brinsden’s debut book Wearing Paper Dresses is a dreamy dramatic story about a family slowly coming undone in the Mallee region of Victoria, Eastern Australia. Elise is an artistic soul, a singer, a painter, a sculptor, and a city girl. Bill is a farm boy, sent to the city to do his part for the war effort. They meet, marry, and have two daughters, Ruby and Marjorie, and the family are happy together living in Melbourne circa the late 1940s. But then Bill’s mother dies and his father needs his help on the family farm, so the four of them pack up and move out to the Mallee. Over the next two decades Ruby and Marjorie grow up in that strange, difficult place, and their mother slowly loses her sanity. At the very end of the book tragedy strikes, and Marjorie runs away from the Mallee. But can she stay away forever?

The style of this book is very dream-like, almost in the realm of magical realism, and it would have been very difficult to get through if it weren’t. Brinsden covers many real, very heavy aspects of life in that time and place: domestic violence, severe mental illness, trauma, death, poverty, exclusion. It was a difficult story to get through at times. But the writing style helps it along, personifying every non-human object and entity that surround the family, from the plastic flowers that Elise is awarded in an ill-fated music competition to the landscape of the Mallee itself. Telling the story from these perspectives takes away some of the pressure and intensity of the family’s situation.

It certainly isn’t a book for everyone – looking at reviews online it seems to divide sharply between those who loved it to bits and those who really struggled with it. I mainly persevered with the book because I read it for book club, but the writing is excellent, the story heavy, and the marriage of the two creates a very unique novel.

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