Monday, November 02, 2009

The Dresskeeper, Mary Naylus


Playing Dressups Was Never More Dangerous! When 13-year-old Picky's Mum forces her to look after Gran, who has dementia, she is accidentally locked in Gran's dusty old attic. There she finds a chest full of old clothes, and tomboy Picky is forced to don what appears to be a ball-gown when the freezing night temperatures hit. As soon as the dress is pinned together, Picky is transported back to the year 1700, where a man who appears to know her as Amelia is trying to kill her. Managing to get the dress off just in time, Picky returns to the present with the dress covered in blood. Did the man kill the girl called Amelia? Will wearing the other dresses in the chest take her back in time too. And will she be in danger again should she try it?

Mary Naylus has created a memorable character in Picky (Penelope) Robson. Thirteen years old, Picky is mutinous and unhappy with her lot in life, having been born with frizzy hair, a lazy eye and big thighs, not only was she being bullied at school, her best friend Luce seems to think that the hottest guy in school is fancying her! She’s also feeling put upon by her mother who is forcing her to look after her Gran over the weekends as she’s suffering from dementia and the carer can’t look after her anymore. Could Picky’s life get any more rubbish?

Yes, in fact, it can. She gets locked in her Gran’s attic on her first weekend of Gran Watch and has to resort sleeping on top of old smelly clothes. The temperature drops and Picky decides to put on one of the frocks from the old chest and steps straight through into a nightmare where a man is trying to kill her – a man from another time, dressed strangely, calling her Amelia.

Picky’s a stubborn sort. And curious to find out what exactly this is all about because it certainly wasn’t a nightmare – it was real. The man did try to kill Amelia, the proof was the blood on the dress and on the attic floor.

As Picky blunders from one adventure after the next, figuring out who Amelia is, what era she lived in and who exactly it was that was trying to kill her, whilst trying to keep up the facade as herself in modern times, I was struck by how much hard work the author has put in to The Dresskeeper.

Picky’s voice remains true throughout the novel, her social awkwardness as herself in Amelia’s body is amusing with some truly cringeworthy moments as she makes mistakes over language and etiquette. Instead of alienating the reader, it serves to highlight how people lived in the 1700’s and how things have changed subsequently, hopefully for the better.

The Dresskeeper appears to be an unprepossessing novel but you had better be ready to have your nose bent out of joint because it is anything but. Picky is funny, to the point of laugh out loud funny, and fiercely protective of her small family, even if she thinks they are all nuts. She does her best to fix things for Amelia and to help those that she leaves behind in old London. Her character may be a bit brash on the outside, but she’s got a heart of gold. No. Seriously.

Mary Naylus did a wonderful job bringing 1700’s London to life, peppering a few famous people throughout the novel, to give it authenticity. It’s easy enough to believe that you may one day stumble across a box of old dresses that can magically transport you to another century, reading The Dresskeeper. Old London, its customs and its people and the social scene at the time is handled very deftly and it never becomes a lesson, or preachy, to its readers. This I genuinely appreciated.

The Dresskeeper is aimed at the 12+ audience but I’d be honest here to say that it can be read to a younger audience too as the language is quirky and fun and almost everyone will be able to relate to a slightly unhinged family life and embarrassing situations.

The Dresskeeper is published in November by Prospera Publishers.

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