Diana Burstall - Between the Covers
The Dressmakers Daughter
By Kate Llewellyn
This beautifully packaged memoir by Kate Llewellyn, distinguished Australian poet and author of 19 books, tells of her sheltered early life with her parents and three brothers, on the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia in the 1940s. Her attention to the detail of their daily activities evokes the pace, rhythm, social mores and physical reality of the times.
Kate tells of her unusual marriage to a man rendered paraplegic by polio, owning art galleries together, and their prominent social involvement in Adelaide in the sixties and seventies. Many names are mentioned and the book includes photographs. With an understated humour, she writes of her German heritage, her nursing years, her experiences as a mother, her inability to deal with grief, her tender regrets, and through it all, her compulsive writing of diaries, eventually leading to her blossoming as a poet and writer.
As events begin to pile up and her life unravels, the detached way she writes makes it possible for her to look dispassionately at her own behaviour, but there are other times where this detachment becomes distracting, as when she makes a statement and then doesnt elaborate. The moment seems to be left floating, unanchored to the surrounding context. For instance, when talking about her frustrations with her class at university One day I rode my bike home at lunchtime from class and actually began to scream in frustration at yet another class where we had discussed what we would study. My flared tomato-red trousers caught in the bike chain and I came to a sudden halt.
Then she moves on with the narrative, with no further reference to the event. Its almost as if she avoids delving into anything that keeps us in the present. There are about eight of these abandoned sentences throughout the book, causing a curiously jagged rhythm to emerge.
She has a deft way of skimming over her feelings in particular moments, leaving us to surmise, and sometimes raises intriguing possibilities about what drives her, but then doesnt explore any further. This may have a direct parallel with her habit in life of hiding her true feelings, even from herself.
Her poetic descriptions were a pleasure to read, for example, of the nurses at a ball One by one, like butterflies leaving a branch, we stood, unleashed our skirts and began to flit around the floor.
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