REVIEW: The Dressmakers of Yarrandarrah Prison by Meredith Jaffe
Can a wedding dress save a bunch of hardened crims? The Full Monty meets Orange is the New Black in a poignantly comic story about a men’s prison sewing circle.
Derek’s daughter Debbie is getting married. He’s desperate to be there, but he’s banged up in Yarrandarrah Correctional Centre for embezzling funds from the golf club, and, thanks to his ex-wife, Lorraine, he hasn’t spoken to Debbie in years. He wants to make a grand gesture – to show her how much he loves her. But what?
Inspiration strikes while he’s embroidering a cushion at his weekly prison sewing circle – he’ll make her a wedding dress. His fellow stitchers rally around and soon this motley gang of crims is immersed in a joyous whirl of silks, satins and covered buttons.
But as time runs out and tensions rise both inside and outside the prison, the wedding dress project takes on greater significance. With lives at stake, Derek feels his chance to reconcile with Debbie is slipping through his fingers …
A funny, dark and moving novel about finding humanity, friendship and redemption in unexpected places.
Dear Ms. Jaffe,
What a wonderful book. I read the blurb, thought it might be cute and funny but the reality blew me away. Yes there is humor but there is heart and soul and connection. I loved the Australianisms and learned a few new ones. This is a book I began reading and would come up for air after being immersed in it for hours and only then because something yanked me out. It’s the type of book I love in which I honestly didn’t know what was going to happen next but I just had to know what happened next. It has shot to the top of my best books of the year and I’m so happy I read it.
The omniscient narration in present tense shook me up a bit until I got used to it but soon I didn’t even notice it as I entered the world of Yarrandarrah Prison and the men who are there. These are not innocent angels, mistakenly done up and sentenced to years behind bars. Some are murderers, arsonists, or thieves. When a riot breaks out, some act badly and a murder occurs. There is tension all the time as the smallest mistake or lapse in attention or judgement can lead to a beating or worse.
Derek has spent his five years (out of seven) in the system trying to stay in the background, be unnoticed, not draw attention as that will usually get a man in trouble. He writes a letter a week to his daughter (who has never answered), works in the prison hospital, but lives for the three hours a week when he takes part in a prison sewing group called Backtackers. When his (ex) sister-in-law shows up and drops the news on him that his only daughter is getting married and that Derek better come up with a good gift since he won’t be there on the day, Derek is flummoxed. Anything he could buy with the little he has saved up wouldn’t make up for five years of absence. Then it hits him, he’ll make something for her. Something to show how much he loves her even if he can’t walk her down the aisle.
Only … the woman who runs Backtackers and Derek’s fellow stitchers aren’t impressed with what he plans. A suggestion is made and before Derek knows it, the ball is rolling and the men are all in. Patterns are examined, fabric and trimmings are debated, and Jane is dispatched to visit Debbie to get measurements. The idea of these hardened crims fingering satin swatches, deciding against fiddly lace, and deliberating about how the train ought to be held up while Debbie is dancing at the reception had me giggling.
But nothing ends up going quite to plan as old feelings are still raw; local politics appear ready to shut down something the prisoners, as well as the townsfolk, depend on; and the dress is soon taking on a far deeper meaning for all the men.
I’ve never been in a prison nor (that I’m aware of) know anyone who has been a prisoner. But after reading this book, I have a vivid idea what it might be like. Yes, there’s the usual watch yourself in the shower but also be careful and correctly read the feeling of the room. Pay attention to avenues of exit, what you say, how loudly you say it, and note who holds the power. The role that poverty, addiction, and violence play in the lives of who ends up incarcerated is shown rather than just pontificated about. The relief that the stitchers feel to be in a place where they can relax just that little bit – though not entirely even there – is palpable.
The idea of men discussing the bits and pieces of a wedding dress might at first be amusing (as I admitted it was) but before long not only that it was important but how it was important is clear. For one man it might help him in his bid for early parole and perhaps open a world for when he gets out. Another man, who has been the main user of the sewing machine, must yield its use (and thus some of his rank in the group) to and teach Derek how to manage slippery duchess silk under the feeder foot. A third will use his skill in embroidery for the veil. And Derek will pour his love for his daughter into it.
If everything had come up roses and there had been a heartfelt reunion between father and daughter, the book would have been good but what elevates it to great is how many things go wrong, how tragedy can strike, how long held resentments can’t be waved away, and how more than one of the men will need to do a lot of introspection and self discovery. There were moments when it all appeared to be headed to hell in a handcart and I thought well, the angst is about to drag it down to a literary fiction book where we know everyone will suffer horribly at the very least.
Then something wonderful happens. Things come together in quiet but believable ways. Some old hurts are avenged, others are soothed, a lovely wedding takes place, and a few truths come out. No, not everything is perfect. Derek is still in prison to serve out the rest of his sentence but he’s a bit more self aware. The idea of prison for redemption rather than just punishment is shown as a reality for some even if they know they’re never going to be released. The stitchers all give something of themselves – even if just encouragement and opinions – to getting the dress finished and they help create a thing of beauty out of the darkness of what brought them to be where they are. The book isn’t dark or depressing – well, most of it isn’t, it treats the frailties of the characters with compassion and understanding, and the final scene had me laughing and shedding a tear or two myself. A
Aussie Foods – Because, no, I didn’t know what a Devon and tomato sauce sandwich was. I do now!
Fine Cell Work – A real life example of prison sewers and stitchers.
The Rajah Quilt – Mentioned in the book, this is a quilt made by transported female convicts in the 1840s. It is now in the National Gallery of Australia after miraculously being discovered in an attic in Scotland.
NOTE – And now for the bad news. As of right now, the only way to buy this digitally is to get it from Australian book websites. It can be purchased from Book Depository as a paperback book.