Pearl convinces Rose to visit Edie Baker, once a renowned dressmaker, now a rumored witch. Together Rose and Edie hand-stitch an unforgettable dress of midnight blue for Rose to wear at the Harvest Festival—a dress that will have long-lasting consequences on life in Leonora, a dress that will seal the fate of one of the girls. Karen Foxlee's breathtaking novel weaves friendship, magic, and a murder mystery into something moving, real, and distinctly original.
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The Midnight Dress
By Karen Foxlee
University of Queensland PressCopyright © 2013 Karen Foxlee
All rights reserved.
Will you forgive me if I tell you the ending? There's a girl. She's standing where the park outgrows itself and the manicured lawn gives way to longer grass and the stubble of rocks. She is standing in no-man's-land, between the park and the place where the mill yards begin.
It's night and the cane trains are still.
It is unbearably humid and she feels the sweat sliding down her back and she presses her hands there into the fabric to stop the sensation that is ticklishly unpleasant. She lifts up the midnight dress to fan her legs. It's true, the dress is a magical thing, it makes her look so heavenly.
The shoes she's wearing are too big. She's tripped once already walking in them, across the park, away from the town. She drank some wine earlier, cheap wine, behind the rotunda. She can still hear the harvest festival now. A voice over a microphone proclaiming what a wonderful night it is, then music, a slow out-of-time waltz. She can hear the crowd too, the deep rumble of voices and the sudden shrieks of laughter.
She feels excited. The girl doesn't think she has ever felt so excited. It's been building in her for weeks, this breathless rushing sensation. She feels the goose flesh rise on her arms just thinking of it. She's exactly where she is meant to be, that's what it is, it's like a homecoming. It's like her dreams. She puts a hand on her stomach because she has butterflies and, with the other, adjusts the coronet in her hair.
She doesn't know how she should stand when he arrives. She doesn't know whether she should have one leg in front of the other like a beauty queen, or legs side by side. Should she lean her back against something as though she isn't so excited, standing in that place, clutching the little black purse in her hands? What will she do with the purse? When he goes to hold her, how will she put it down, will she just drop it? She's trying to sort these things out in her mind.
What should she say? Her mind is perfectly blank when it comes to that. Usually she can think of words, but now she can't think of anything. Maybe something will come when he arrives. Something funny maybe, or seductive, or both.
When she hears footsteps her heart nearly jumps out her mouth.
'Where are you?' she whispers, because she can't see him yet.
It's dark. Suddenly it feels darker, as though a cloud has passed over the moon. She looks up to check but there is the moon, newly struck, white hot. When she looks back he's there. He looks as shocked as her but then he smiles.
'What are you doing here?' she says.
Rose arrives one night in January when the barometers are dipping and there is not a breath of air in the wide empty streets. The palm trees along the main drag hang their despondent heads and women fan themselves in open doorways hoping for something, some little breeze. Old ladies watch the evening news, take hankies from their bra straps and wipe their top lips; in public bars the sweat drips from chins. And already in countless darkened bedrooms, on beds beneath ceiling fans that thump and whir, girls lie dreaming of dresses.
The rain comes in sudden exhausted sighs and spontaneous shuddering downpours but does nothing to ease the discomfort. They drive down the deserted main street and Rose thinks it looks like a shitty little place. She's an expert on such things. They could keep driving except there isn't enough petrol left. The service station is closed. That alone sums up the town. They turn across the train tracks, where they see a sign proclaiming paradise just 7 kms ahead.
Paradise is a caravan park. Her father kills the engine and sits still, gripping the wheel. Rose can hear the ocean, the sudden intake of its breath, as though it has remembered something, something terrible, but finding there is nothing it can do, it breathes out again. The night is dark and starless.
'It's as good a place as any,' he finally says.
She gets out and slams the door.
Toads leap before every step.
The kiosk is shut too. There's a bell for after-hours arrivals, which she rings but no one comes.
When she gets back to the car her father is still sitting at the wheel. She reaches in and takes the keys from the ignition. He doesn't flinch. Typical. She knows exactly what will happen next. He will stay there all night thinking. He'll try to solve the problem as though it is a huge and complicated theorem, but in the morning he'll realise it is all very simple. He'll stumble from the car and into the caravan, pull the little curtain around his bed and his shaking will begin.
'I'm going to bed, Dad,' she says.
'Okay,' he says, staring out at the dark.
She can't attach the power until the kiosk is open, so she moves through the dark inside the caravan until she reaches her own small bed. She opens the drawer beside her pillow, feels for her brush, undoes her hair. She brushes it out, seventy-one strokes, and ties it in a plait. She remembers her mother doing exactly the same thing. The memory is hazy, pale, like an overexposed photo. She presses her eyes until the image burns and is replaced by tears.
Stupid. It's stupid to cry.
'Stupid,' she says aloud.
It's raining lightly. It patters softly on the caravan roof. When she was small her father said that was God drumming his fingertips. She can hear the sea very clearly, its sharp breaths and exhalations, the whole night around her, thinking. She lies down, presses her eyes again.
If she had a light she'd write something in the little green notebook she keeps. The words would be clumsy as bricks, she knew it, and later she'd tear out the paper, ashamed. In the book she keeps a column of words she hates. First is the word grief. She hates the sound of it. It reminds her of a small wound, half-healed. The word doesn't encompass at all the emotion that has no edges. The feeling rises like a giant cumulus cloud. It surrounds her, dark and magical. At night when she presses her eyes she feels she could quite easily levitate, held up by that cloud, float out the little window above her bed. It would take her over the town, the truck stop, the highway, the cane fields, the paddocks, the bush. That is how she would like to describe grief. She wishes there was a word as powerful as all that.
She goes nowhere. Stays pressing her eyes. She listens to the rain until she falls asleep.
Pearl Kelly half listens to the others talking in the seniors' toilet block about the new girl. She sits on the bench with her legs stretched out, while the others are huddled around the dull metal mirror staring at their smudgy reflections. She is half-thinking about the kiss too, Jonah Pedersen's kiss, which was cool and wet and not at all what she was expecting. It was different from Tom Coyne's. His kisses had always been small and tight and dry. They had been rhythmical, as though he was beating out a tune with his lips. Tom Coyne had known how to kiss, even in Year Seven.
It's disappointing, all of it, because she had waited so long for the Jonah Pedersen kiss, when she needn't have. Everyone had been waiting. And now it's there, all messy on her lips, and she just wants to forget it. Worse than that, she could tell afterward that he was embarrassed. That he knew he was bad at it, when everyone thought he was so perfect. It's an ugly secret.
She drifts back to the girls' conversation.
'She's really unusual,' says Maxine Singh.
'Ugly unusual?' asks Vanessa Raine, who is the most beautiful girl in the school and likes to keep track of such things. 'Or odd unusual?'
'I saw her in Mrs D's office,' says Shannon Fanelli, 'I mean just the side of her. I think she might have really bad skin or maybe they were moles.'
'Or warts?' says Mallory Johnson.
'I saw her from the front,' says Maxine. 'She's actually kind of an unusual pretty.'
'Except for her hair,' says Shannon, 'She has this crazy hair in two buns tied up with about one thousand bobby pins.'
'Hello,' says Rose, entering the toilet block.
She doesn't have a bag. She's carrying just one pencil. Her uniform is way too big. She looks at their hem lengths, their hair, the way they stare back at her with their lip-glossed mouths just a little open, and calculates immediately, in a fraction of a second, that she will never fit in.
'Hi,' they say in unison.
'Hi,' Rose says again. She can tell she'll hate it; she always does. She touches her hair to make sure no stray curls have escaped.
Then Pearl jumps off the bench, smiling.
'Geography or French?' she asks.
The truth is she should say geography because Rose has never taken French. Rose looks at Pearl and tries to think. The girl is of perfectly normal height, with perfectly proportioned limbs and perfectly pretty in a golden-haired, sun-kissed kind of way. Exactly the kind of girl that Rose likes the least. But is she a geography or French kind of girl? She doesn't look exotic. Exotic is not the word for Pearl Kelly. She looks like she might like colouring in the layers of the earth. She'd take great pride in it. She looks like a girl who would feel quite at home with vile words like tectonic and magma. She would understand map scale.
'French,' Rose says aloud.
'Excellent,' says Pearl.
Rose's heart sinks.
The truth is, she wasn't even going to go to school except that Mrs Lamond, who runs the caravan park, vaguely threatened to go to the authorities. Mrs Lamond is small and leathery. Sometimes she paints her eyebrows on and sometimes she forgets.
'Will you be here for long, then?' Mrs Lamond asked.
Mrs Lamond can tell holiday makers from drifters. This father and daughter outfit were drifters. Another sorry affair.
'Probably,' Rose said.
'Better enrol in school, then.'
'I'm fifteen, nearly sixteen,' Rose informed her. 'I don't have to go to school.'
'School would be the best place for you.'
Mrs Lamond doesn't like the scrawny girl with the sad eyes who comes into the kiosk and thumbs through the magazines but never buys.
'And while we're at it, this isn't a library.'
Rose put down the article 'Seven Sexy Ways to Wear Your Hair', touched her pinned-down curls.
The truth is, on the first morning she had discovered that the beach was, in fact, a paradise, a little cup-shaped bay fringed by rainforest. She had stepped out the caravan door and stared at it, rubbing her eyes. She had walked past the car where her father still slept, all the way to the soft white sand. When she dipped her toes in the sea that morning, she broke its smooth olive-green skin. Then when she turned she saw the mountain looming behind her, sitting sage in its skirt of clouds.
'Shit,' she said.
Her father stumbled from the car into the caravan. He pulled the curtain to his own corner, stripped off, lay beneath his sheets. Over the next days the caravan filled up with the smell of his sweat. He was oblivious. She wrote that word in her notebook. oblivious. He was oblivious to the sea, which changed colour through the day, green to blue to turquoise; oblivious to the huge clouds that raked shadows across its surface and then flung them onto the mountain face; oblivious to the waterfalls she could see, high up on the rocks, and to the startling eruptions of rainbow-coloured birds.
Rose did exactly what she always did. She performed her ministrations. She made him toast, let it cool on the bench; it was all he could eat. She bought two-litre bottles of coke from the kiosk, which seemed to soothe him. She wet a towel and he laid it over his body like a shroud.
She brought these things to him soundlessly, went on bare feet, sand still patterned on her legs, said nothing.
'Thanks,' he said once.
Once, 'I'm sorry.'
Rose spent the rest of her time exploring. She climbed over the rocks at the right side of the bay and found another beach, exactly as perfect and completely deserted. She thought about moving her stuff there. A few items of clothing, her green notebook: she could empty out her little drawer into her black plastic bag. She could build a shelter out of palm fronds. All she'd need was matches and a blanket. She'd find water somewhere. She fantasised about these things at length, sitting on the beach or floating on her back in the sea. The clouds built all day and each night they burst and the rain that fell obliterated all other sounds, the sea, her breathing, her father's restless turnings.
'What's up with your dad, then?' Mrs Lamond asked. 'Is he sick or something?'
'A bit,' said Rose, running her fingers along the snow domes containing plastic reef scenes. 'But he's getting better.'
'I like your hair,' says Pearl in first period, French.
Rose had used a black rinse. She'd walked all the way to town to buy the stuff and hitchhiked back with a man in a truck full of watermelons. It had cost her nearly twelve dollars on account of all her hair, money which could have been spent on food or petrol.
The rinse made her hair more coarse and wiry than ever.
'Serves you right,' her father said, sitting on the edge of his bed, tentatively, watching her with his long thin sorrowful face.
Today, her first morning of school, she tied her hair in two buns on either side of her head. It made her look like she was wearing headphones, which made her laugh. She walked to the caravan park showers and outlined her eyes in thick black eyeliner. There was nothing she could do about her thousand freckles. She examined herself in the mirrors.
'Ugly bitch,' she said, then went to wait at the place that Mrs Lamond said the bus would pass.
She thought that at the school office they'd make her wash off her make-up, but the headmistress, Mrs D'addazio, didn't even seem to notice.
'Lovely,' she said, looking at Rose. 'The girls will be so excited to have a new friend. We're a small school, very small, and how old are you? Here, you're fifteen, so that's just lovely, you'll be able to take part in the Harvest Parade, that is on at the end of May, we have our very own float at Leonora High and all the girls are on it, you'll have to find a dress. All the girls have dresses made. We call it dress season here. It's a tradition, I guess you could call it that. Can your mother sew?'
'I don't have a mother,' said Rose.
'Oh darling,' said Mrs D'addazio, 'I'm so sorry, of course you don't. Well, don't worry, I'm sure we'll find someone who can help you.'
Rose kept her face implacable.
'I mean it's a really nice colour, your hair,' Pearl adds in French.
Pearl's fluoro highlighters have tumbled out of her pink pencil case and rolled across to Rose's side of the table. Pearl leans to retrieve them. She has no idea about the rules of personal space, Rose decides. Pearl Kelly smells of coconut and frangipani.
'I have a highlighter dependency,' says Pearl.
Rose looks at her and away.
Pearl writes in the highlighters, mixing all the colours, big letters, tangerine and lime and lemon and cherry pink. She adds huge exclamation marks and instead of dots there are love hearts above each and every letter i. It makes Rose feel faintly queasy. She taps her black nails on the desk so that Pearl can see them.
'I think you're going to really love it here,' says Pearl.
They have to form pairs so Madame Bonnick can hand out their group assignments.
'Just stay with me,' whispers Pearl, which is très annoying.
She has arranged her highlighters très neatly.
'Good idea,' says Madame Bonnick. She speaks French with a terribly nasal accent. 'Bonne idée. Pearl will look after Rose. These are the roles that you will play for the assignment, you will pick them from the hat, and there will be no negotiation. For each role you will prepare two minutes of dialogue and the more impressive you are with your roles, the more imaginative, the better. I am talking props, mesdemoiselles and messieurs. I am talking costumes.'
Pearl picks a piece of paper from Madame Bonnick's hat.
'Oh goody,' she says.
'No way,' says Vanessa across the room, because she has picked the Hunchback of Notre Dame. She flicks her long blond ponytail and starts to argue for a redraw.
At recess Pearl insists that Rose sit with them.
'Honestly, where else are you going to sit?' Pearl says. 'What are you eating?'
'Nothing,' says Rose.
'Are you anorexic?' asks Shannon with a hint of excitement.
'Here, eat my apple,' says Pearl. She hands it to Rose.
There are six girls in all: Vanessa, Pearl, Maxine, Mallory, Shannon, and now Rose. They begin to talk of dresses.
'Have you picked your colour yet, Pearlie?' asks Vanessa. 'The colour of the year is aquamarine or hot pink or anything metallic. I'm not telling you what I'm having but it's along those lines. It's going to be the biggest surprise. I'm having sequins all across the bodice. My mother did my colours. She is totally psychic with colours. She can do yours if you want, but I think you'd be an autumn. People who are autumn should never wear gold. There are lots of other colours that you can choose from.'
Excerpted from The Midnight Dress by Karen Foxlee. Copyright © 2013 Karen Foxlee. Excerpted by permission of University of Queensland Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The beautiful and intricatley written words made this book stand out. A pleasant surprise. Only reason it didnt get five stars was because i figured out the ending fairly early on. but i wont say it was predictable, im just good at guessing. Definitely should read
Rose Lovell doesn't expect much from the small seaside town of Leonora. Then again, the town doesn't expect much from her either. Rose has seen towns like this before. She'll likely see even more when her father's wanderlust kicks in and they drive off in their caravan again. In all the towns, in all the schools, Rose has never seen anyone quite like Pearl Kelly. Pearl who thinks everyone is nice. Pearl who writes in highlighter and dreams of Russia. Vivacious, popular Pearl who organizes the high school float for the annual Harvest Festival Parade. Rose never could have guessed in those first moments that she and Pearl would become friends. She couldn't have known that Pearl would convince Rose--a lonely hailstorm next to Pearl's sunshine--to make a dress for the Harvest Parade. Edie Baker, the supposed town witch, is known for her dressmaking as much as her strange, ramshackle house. Together she and Rose piece together a dress of midnight blue and magic as Edie reveals pieces of her own past to Rose while they bend over the stitches together. By the time the parade draws near they will have created an unforgettable dress. A dress of mystery and beauty, but also one that will become woven into the fabric of a tragedy that will forever mark the town of Leonora and leave both girls changed in The Midnight Dress (2013) by Karen Foxlee. The Midnight Dress is a haunting blend of mystery and beauty as the events leading to the Harvest Festival and the aftermath of that night unfold simultaneously. Foxlee expertly knits the two stories together in chapters titled for different stitches. Lyrical dialogue and poetic descriptions lend a timeless air to this story of an unforgettable friendship between two girls who are lonely and yearning for very different things in a small Australian town in 1987.* Moments from the near and distant past blend seamlessly as Edie's own story is revealed over the sewing of the dress. There is something half-wild about the characters in The Midnight Dress. That same sense of dangerous allure and an underlying dignity comes through in Foxlee's writing as she describes the sometimes brutal town politics and the wonders found in the rain forest bordering the town. The Midnight Dress is a beautiful story of the many forms love can take and the enduring power of positive thoughts. But at the same time it examines unspeakable loss and the fact that tragedies never leave people unmarred--actions, however small or well-meant, have consequences. It's hard to call this book a happy one, or even an optimistic one. Many of the characters here are broken; many of them will remain that way for a very long while. At the same time, however, this story offers moments of beauty with deceptively ornate and electric writing. Easily one of the best books I've read this year and highly recommended. Just make sure you have a happy book lined up for right after. *The time period doesn't matter ostensibly because this book is largely timeless. I just felt very clever for figuring out the year and wanted to share it. Possible Pairings: 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher, What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell, A Little Wanting Song by Cath Crowley, Prom and Prejudice by Elizabeth Eulberg, Moonglass by Jessi Kirby, Boy Toy by Barry Lyga, Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta, Teach Me by R. A. Nelson, Tamar by Mal Peet, Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell, Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli, Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma, Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, Wherever Nina Lies by Lynn Weingarten, Paper Valentine by Brenna Yovanoff, Dust Girl by Sarah Zettel
In a round about way this is story of a missing girl. It is told in two parts. The beginning of the chapters details the events of the day of the disappearance and the investigation that follows, while the rest of the chapter tells the story of Rose and through Rose - her friend Pearl. While the story is quite interesting, I really wasn't totally sure what it was about or why it was being told for a very long time. It seemed like it was mostly just a story about a couple girls. The writing was very good, but the story just wasn't what I was expecting and, unfortunately, not something I would have normally read. *This book was received in exchange for an honest review*