Title: The Dressmakers of Yarrandarrah Prison
Author: Meredith Jaffe
Published: 5th May 2021, HarperCollins Australia
Status: Read May 2021 courtesy HarperCollins Australia
The Dressmakers of Yarrandarrah Prison is a thoughtful and engaging contemporary novel by Meredith Jaffe.
Derek Brown is five years into a seven year sentence for embezzlement when he learns his daughter is getting married. Though he hasn’t seen nor heard from Debbie during his incarceration, despite writing her weekly letters, Derek wants to give her a gift that reminds her how much she is loved. Unable to afford any extravagance, Derek decides to use the skills he has learnt at Backtackers, the weekly sewing group he attends run by a volunteer, to make his daughter something meaningful, but has to be convinced when the inmates suggest he makes her a wedding dress.
Told with warmth and humour, The Dressmakers of Yarrandarrah Prison is a story that explores the themes of, among others, estrangement, addiction, connection and redemption. It centers around Derek, but expands to involve a number of other characters, both from within and outside of the prisons walls, and includes a touch of romance, and a side of politics.
I’m familiar with the book club programs that operate in prisons, but I was surprised to learn sewing groups exist, activities like tapestry and quilting are not pastimes I’d associate with male inmates. Jaffe’s inspiration for the Yarrandarrah Prison sewing group came from the charity organisation, Fine Cell Work, which runs programs in British prisons. Designed to not only teach incarcerated men needlework and sewing skills which could be used to improve employment opportunities on release, the program has also proven valuable in strengthening mental health, building self esteem and promoting positive connections.
Derek arguably stands to gain the most from the completion of the wedding dress, but each of the Backtackers also benefit in both tangible and intangible ways from the project. Jaffe’s inmate characters are a diverse group whom she writes about with empathy, flawed though they may be. She challenges the shallow perceptions of incarcerated criminals by creating well rounded, authentic characters, from the irrepressible young Maloney, to the manipulative lifer, Doc. I found the dynamics of the relationships within the prison, and the BackTackers, to be interesting.
I also appreciated the insight into the modern Australian prison system Jaffe provides. She doesn’t shy away from the realities of the system, and makes some thought-provoking observations about the competing philosophies of incarceration as a means of punishment versus rehabilitation.
With its unusual setting, well crafted plot and interesting characters, I enjoyed reading The Dressmakers of Yarrandarrah Prison. To learn more about the book, and its author, please read Reading, Rioting and Libraries, an exclusive guest post by Meredith Jaffe published here at Book’d Out earlier.
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