I hadn’t heard of Mena Calthorpe before the vibrant cover of The Dyehouse caught my eye in our office – you may have seen it pop up on our Instagram – and, after coursing through it in a few, frantic evenings, I can’t understand how such a significant voice has not been celebrated more. A quiet but unyielding book, The Dyehouse applies a close lens to industrial working life in Australia, and, with its honest and enduring exploration of factory life, it is well chosen to mark the hundredth book in the Text Classics series.
Set in the mid ‘50s around a textile dyeing factory in a dreary suburb, Calthorpe explores the experiences of those who live pay-packet to pay-packet, with little in the way of security, or control over their fates. She draws from a broad cast of characters, which ranges from the worker who has given 35 years to the Dyehouse, and defines himself by his expertise at colour matching, to the abhorrent boss who hides his mistakes by blaming employees, to the young workers who wander from town to town, searching for better opportunities until they can no longer survive the journeys. Despite the endless struggle, the workers find some meaning, though their dreams are limited:
“I’d like to have a lot to give you, Patty. A new house in one of the outer suburbs. Lovely clothes. We haven’t got much. All our lives we’ll be working and just trying to hang on to what we have. Blokes with money will make more and more. People like us will make it for them. And all the time we’ll be lucky if we can just hang on.”
The Dyehouse pays close attention to the divides between staff, factory workers and management, and the relationships that exist between them. Calthorpe’s elegant, understated prose really lends itself here, letting the daily experiences and intimate moments highlight the different priorities and worries that characterise the classes. When the managers authorise technological advancements in the factory, in the interests of profit, many jobs are rendered obsolete, stranding older workers who cannot adapt quickly enough. With one character’s free-fall, Calthorpe shows how precariously many of these lives are balanced, and how quickly they can descend into financial, and mental, devastation.
Gender is also a key interest for Calthorpe, who exposes the limited options for women with two characters who have made choices from either end of the available spectrum. One has made all the decisions as expected of her; pursuing a respected position, choosing the ‘sensible’ option of remaining in her home town rather than following her passion on an uncertain journey; the other is more engaged with her ‘feminine wiles,’ and is seduced and discarded by a man in a position of power at the Dyehouse. Both are trapped by the system, renting tiny rooms with little chance of improvement. The only secure future available is dependent on men, and marriage.
Although the novel clearly frames a lived experience that is wearing and pitiless, the endless hope of the characters adds an uplifting, though wrenching, light:
“It might be easier for the boy,” Barney thought. “Sixteen or seventeen years is a long time. And the future could be different. Yes, a man could bank on that. The future would not be the same.”
A delicately structured and balanced novel with sustained bite, The Dyehouse provides crucial perspective, far removed from the abundance of novels about the literary middle class. This is not a light read, but it is an important one.
(£8.99, p/b, 320pp, 9781925355758)
Post by Clare