For her first venture into fiction, Australian playwright Rosalie Ham turns to small-town life in the Victorian wheatbelt of the 1950s, in what the cover aptly describes as a "Gothic novel of love, hate and haute couture."

Dressmaker Tilly Dunnage returns to her home town to look after her ailing mother, Molly, having departed in murky circumstances 20 years before. She encounters the unsavoury and sometimes malevolent figures from her childhood, and a luridly colourful lot they are: the vicious gossip who constantly complains of others to the police, the pillar of the council who abuses his wife, the insatiable adulterers.

It's the kind of place where you can't open a closet without a skeleton falling out.

Tilly, afflicted with guilt over her past, tries to re-establish herself by putting her dazzling dressmaking skills at the service of the town's women, eager as they all are to impress and outdo each other.

She finds an affinity with the local sergeant, who has his closets innocuously full of the women's clothes that he loves to sew and don in private. But the local nastiness proves incurable, and this book recalls the work of Thea Astley, who, in novels such as A Descant for Gossips and A Kindness Cup, has made the claustrophobia-induced vindictiveness of Australian small towns something of a specialty.

When Tilly faces tragedy again, the townspeople turn against her once more - but with unexpected, and (for the reader) satisfying consequences.

The Dressmaker is divided into four sections, and the tone of each is cleverly caught by the name of the fabric in its title: "Gingham," "Shantung," "Felt" and "Brocade." The story is fast-paced and often compellingly visual, especially in its evocations of the couture of the postwar period.

Ham strives to bring out, too, the psychic cost of prejudice, and of having one's loss and grief always on show: for the victims, "everywhere they looked they would see what they once had ... everywhere they looked, they could see that everyone saw them, knowing."

But the novel's changes in tone from black comedy to pathos are not always well-handled. This is largely because the past sufferings of Tilly and Molly, and Tilly's new love affair, are not given sufficient space. The book builds up a catalogue of misfortunes for the two women - too many to seem entirely plausible, even in a novel of this genre - yet fails to treat any of them at length. It is as if Ham is afraid of developing the emotional potential of her story. She is, nonetheless, a novelist to watch.

Duffy and Snellgrove


* Joanne Wilkes lectures in English at the University of Auckland.