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Penguin Books (Australian Imprint,Paperback 0670879681)
A golden dress, beautiful and shimmering, worn by a young woman dancing -- this image pervades this beautifully written novel by Marion Halligan and haunts its characters. 

Set in two Australian cities -- Sydney and Newcastle -- and in Paris, the story concerns three women: Ivy, the quintessential Aussie battler; Molly, her daughter and single mother of Ray; and Martine, Ray's girlfriend. Their lives revolve around Ray, an artist. Ray's character remains elusive, however. Instead, the story focuses on the three generations of women surrounding him. 

The story begins when Martine leaves Paris to return to Sydney, tired of Ray's lack of commitment. His tragic early life damaged him, and, even though Ivy tells Martine that he needs Martine to save him from possible self-destruction, Martine knows that it is time to go home. 

Ray, raised in the industrial town of Newcastle by a single mother, lacks hope and inner strength. We discover how he reaches this impasse in his life by reading about his background.  

In the process of rendering Ivy's hard and wearisome life coping with a sick husband, Halligan perfectly captures Australian life in the 1950s and 1960s in a working-class town. Halligan also makes you empathize with the discontented Molly, wearer of the golden dress, who fell in love with a married man and was left to raise his child in her mother's house. 

The character of Martine, a modern career woman living in Sydney, is drawn with similar depth. The tender love story between Ray and Martine enchants, even though we know and understand her thoughts more than his. 

Halligan describes the settings lyrically and evocatively -- you can almost feel the cobblestones beneath your feet, smell the baguettes and see the ancient buildings of Paris, and the winding tree-lined streets of Sydney. 

But the far-fetched ending spoils the novel somewhat -- one feels the author became a little tired of the story and wanted to finish it quickly. Apart from this flaw I enjoyed The Golden Dress very much and look forward to reading other novels by this excellent Australian author. 

Lisa-Anne Sanderson

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