The first thing you need to know about Dress, Memory is that it’s not really a book about dresses. In this lovable, sometimes sad memoir, Australian author Lorelei Vashti lays bare the highs and lows of her 20s, loosely structuring the story around 12 dresses that each represent a phase of growing up.
And, boy, does she do a lot of growing up in these pages. Some of her life bloopers will be familiar to anyone who has ever been a twentysomething: such as falling for the unavailable flatmate, trying and failing to make it big in yet another city, wanting a baby for the wrong reasons, or denying problems until the point of physical and mental collapse. Some are excruciating – such as crying during her first pay rise request – but that only makes this book even more readable. Her willingness to put her stuff-ups on full display is endearing and the writing is very good.
Vashti, who worked as a professional manuscript editor, blogger and newspaper columnist, knows her way around simile and metaphor, with enjoyably evocative results. It’s not an old piano pushed against a wall but an “exhausted” one. Canvases “huddled in corners with their backs to me”. A Japanese dressing frame “leaned to one side like an old woman eavesdropping”.
Dialogue is limited, and perhaps that’s the most honest way of writing about events that took place nearly a decade ago, but more conversation to break up the long passages of descriptive text wouldn’t have gone astray.
But yes, the one-dress-for-every-milestone conceit does actually work. Vashti doesn’t labour the point. The dresses are beautifully described and well integrated into the storyline (helpfully, they’re also depicted in a lovely photographic section). Each garment really does have symbolic meaning, significant enough to carry the narrative forward, but not painfully obvious. And all of us know what it is like to hold on to objects – whether they’re dresses, books or albums – that signify an important stage in one’s life. This isn’t just a book for dress lovers or the fashion conscious.
Ultimately, Dress, Memory is a book about the universally difficult transformation from clueless teen to functional adult, and the author’s insights into how we know when that change has taken place are particularly insightful. It’s a heavy topic but Vashti’s prose is not. I look forward to what the next decade holds for this excellent writer. LL
Allen & Unwin, 272pp, $27.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 30, 2014 as "Lorelei Vashti, Dress, Memory". Subscribe here.