Sometimes you stumble across a book: a wonderful discovery from a second hand bookshop, a recommendation from a well-read friend, or an old classic that’s been sitting on the to-read pile for too long. But sometimes you hear about a book because the people around you simply will not stop talking about it. I saw Lorelei Vashti talk about Dress, Memory at the Emerging Writers’ Festival earlier this year and I loved the excerpt she read. Once the book was released I had seen a flurry of recommendations from people I follow on Twitter, but I figured my to-read pile is always too large and often I come to releases a little later anyway. But then I read this great piece in The Saturday Paper and knew there was more to this book than what met the eye. Finally, my dear friend Stella wrote this review for Readings and I gave up, buying the book that afternoon.
Dress, Memory is a memoir based around dresses: a significant dress from each year of Lorelei’s twenties helps her talk about the events that shaped her, both in the year of each chapter, and as the woman she is today. There is something I want to get clear from the beginning though: this is not chick-lit. Or maybe it is, but of the best kind. It is easy to read, funny and hosts some vibrant, stylised photos of Vashti herself modelling the dresses in question, but the writing here is beautiful and the sentiment is heartfelt without being overly wrought. The reason I want to put this out there from the start of this post is that the book design from the publisher Allen & Unwin makes Dress, Memory appear very much sitting in the chick-lit camp - in fact I just saw it in a book shop on the Fashion shelf - but I don’t want readers to be put off by this. Vashti’s writing is intelligent and thoughtful and Dress, Memory deserves to be seen without this gaze. I’m not saying the publisher has sold her short - I’m very confident these decisions have been made in order to open this book up to broader markets, and I certainly hope it is read widely - but I do fear that it may alienate a particular type of reader from picking up this book. Don’t let that be the case.
Dress, Memory is a gorgeous memoir if for no other reason than you immediately feel like you have been friends with Vashti for years. The stories and themes of Dress, Memory are told with reflection and self-awareness: Vashti freely looks back and laughs at herself in the same way we all do when we hit thirty, looking back at our twenties both smiling and cringing. A lot of the events Vashti retells are highly relatable to Australian women in particular, but I imagine many of these tales are universal: of leaving home for university, moving to new cities, travelling out into the world, first loves, unrequited loves, difficult relationships.
Vashti, describing moving to Melbourne for the first time, describes beautifully the fear and promise that greets us as we arrive:
“The move to Melbourne from any other city in Australia makes you feel like a pioneer, one of those dusty and determined characters out of an American history novel trudging west to seek a land of gold and dreams. But here the goldfields are south, and the weather becomes colder, not hotter, and the people get more pale and shivery because of the nearness to Antarctica and the amount of coffee drunk.
You’re told you can find treasure—the secret bars hidden down the alleyways, the tiny shops filled with precious curios, the art openings overflowing out onto the street. But the true gold that paves Melbourne’s footpaths is the promise that you can be a writer, an artist, a musician, a performer there. People who move there want to be discovered, they want to make a mark.”
But as wonderful as Vashti is at describing the wonderlust of your twenties, of new discoveries and grand plans, she so eloquently retells darker patches: of times where she didn’t know what feelings were heightened by love and what were caused by depression; the overwhelmingness of new love amongst the sometimes overbearing surrounds of a new city.
At the Melbourne launch for Dress, Memory host Brodie Lancaster commented that this book is full of “me too moments” and drew on this moment in particular as a humorous example, where you see yourself change as if it were happening to someone else, someone far less cool than the person you know you used to be:
“If you got a proper job, you could get a car. Once you had a job and a car, your back started hurting from sitting and driving all the time, so that’s when you started doing yoga. But because you got up early to do yoga, you had to go to bed early. So you stopped going to gigs, and did the grocery shopping every Sunday night because you needed to take lunch in to work for the week ahead. Now you even kept the discount fuel offer at the bottom of the docket.”
But ultimately the thing I loved about Dress, Memory was the connection with travel. So much of Vashti’s twenties were spent exploring - new love, new directions, new dreams - against an ever changing backdrop. I also moved around a lot in my twenties (which I talked about in this post for Questions of Travel) and it allowed me to step away from the people and the environment who had made me what I was and gave me space to cast a critical eye over it all. It allowed me to think about who I was and who I wanted to be. As Vashti says: “Travelling allows you to explore undiscovered continents within yourself.” Reading Dress, Memory let me go through that process with someone else in a way that is equally honest and funny, true to the author but also true to so many of us. Most tellingly, early on in the book as Vashti reflects on the end of her twenty-first year, she sums up both her twenties and mine in one beautiful, powerful sentence:
“I’d felt so caught in those in-between waters separating two places, always waiting to get taken somewhere else, with no idea I was already there.”
It was fitting that I read Dress, Memory over my birthday. At thirty-two I thankfully feel spared of most of the angst that this self-discovery in my twenties could bring at times, but nonetheless birthdays are always a time of reflection and of thinking ahead. And of course, they are also time for cake. This Lemon Polenta Cake comes from Nigella Lawson. It’s such a simple recipe but brings such a beautiful result (this photo hastily taken before we all dived in and demolished it does not do it justice). I accidentally added the lemon juice intended for the syrup into the cake itself, but it just intensified the lemon flavour and was a beautiful mistake that I will consciously repeat. The cake is simultaneously dense and crumbly, as many gluten free cakes are, but it is a luxurious treat without being overly sweet. I would happily make this cake again and again, as an excuse to rejoice in those in-between moments, where a piece of cake eaten with friends can be an event in itself.
Funnily enough, as I post this I am off exploring again as I make my way to Newcastle for the National Young Writers’ Festival. It will be my first time attending the four day festival and I am incredibly excited. I will be appearing on two panels: talking about my day job in Arts Management 101, and making my dream sandwich while talking about book-plate and writing about food at MustardChef. If you’re able to make it to Newcastle please come along, it promises to be a lot of fun. Or if you’re also taking part in the festival, I hope to meet you along the way.