Review by Grace Harvey
Based on a real-life shipwreck off the Dutch Island of Texel, Lauren Chater’s The Winter Dress promises an ‘intriguing story of love, loss and fulfilment’.
It definitely didn’t live up to these heights.
I was left entirely wanting by this novel, for a reason to read on or perhaps simply my time back.
The novel follows a pair of parallel storylines. The first is that of textiles historian Jo Baaker who investigates the discovery of a 17th century silk dress off the shore of her hometown on Texel. The second is the historic owner of said dress, Anna Tesseltje, the lady’s companion of the prolific artist, Catharina van Shurman.
The novel doesn’t get off to a promising start. We open with Jo Baaker on a Sydney beach and proceed to spend fifteen plus pages learning the story of her life to the point of our meeting her. Her achievements, her traumas, and her biggest drives in life are dumped into our laps in one, heaping serve. I learnt more about this woman in the first chapter than the plot would reveal in the remaining 353.
It didn’t set a good precedent for the rest of Jo’s narration, which spent most of its time dumping pointless information on us, alongside a series of unnecessary subplots and characters you are given very little room – or reason – to care about.
Initially, it was Anna’s story which kept me reading. Though still prone to information dumps the writing was cleaner and the plot line stronger, I was genuinely invested in some parts. I enjoyed particularly the ways in which the author explored Anna’s relationship with the twins Catharina and Crispjinn and found their banter entertaining. Eventually, however, it too was weighed down with drawn our plot lines and an excessive amounts of info dumping.
What results is a book that feels far too long, that hand-holds its reader far too much, and who’s potentially fascinating plot is weighed down by pointless exposition. I feel that Chater may have been attempting to drive the reader to root for her characters but missed the mark entirely by making them unbearable and two-dimensional. She fails to treat her reader as intelligent, fails to draw out the release of information in a way that feels natural, and it leaves the writing feeling amateur and lacklustre.
However, Chater does establish a beautiful sense of place throughout this novel and the settings of Texel and Sydney felt rich, either well-researched or well-known by the author. Similarly, the description of the dress itself and the other findings buried with it are painted with an equally beautiful and specific detail. It’s a shame that these elements of beauty were so bogged down by a clumsy plot.
The Winter Dress offered an interesting premise within a potentially engaging narrative frame, with small moments of beauty. But it is let down by its persistent and unnecessary exposition, terrible pacing, and overcrowded plot. It was a novel that could not move in any direction without first a description of the waves and rumination from our main characters about their childhoods.
Grace Harvey is a third-year creative writing student and Meanjin (Brisbane) based fiction writer. Their work can be found at ScratchThat, Glass, forthcoming in Baby Teeth Journal, and most places online @graceharveywrites.