Fagan, Melissa. What Will Be Worn, Sydney: Transit Lounge, 2018. RRP: $29.99, 288pp, ISBN: 9781925760095
Melissa Fagan’s What Will Be Worn sets out to tell the story of McWhirters, a Brisbane department store which thrived through the great era of those monolith shops—an era which is over now, each store gradually subsumed under a couple of common monikers. But, quickly in her book, and on seeing the building where McWhirters was, Fagan senses something else. Something she says she cannot unsee. Looking closely at the façade of the place, which was once owned by her family, and which now has ‘birds … nesting in the eaves’, there is only ‘the passage of time, the decay’ (9). This kind of difficult truth is a repeated invocation in the history which follows.
Fagan has an intriguing and strained relationship with nostalgia. For the most part she seems to be opposed to its charms and false potentials, treating family members and family history with a calculated distance. But every so often her guard slips, and she sees (for example), the Isle of Arran glimmering across the sea. The island ‘seemed to act’, she says, ‘as such places often do, as a repository for … longing’ (14). Somehow Fagan’s longing seeps through the pages of What Will be Worn, even if it is only ever glanced sidelong; this is a tantalising way to tell history—and to imagine it. As a reader you are always brought back to the present to sense the passing of time. On the facing page, in Ayr to see where her great-great-grandfather learned the draper trade, Fagan looks into the Firth of Clyde and sees, ‘an abandoned stroller lying on its back, half-drowned, its front wheels poking out of the water’ (15).
When Fagan falls into the past, and into the heads of her forebears, the writing is vivid and flicks at your senses. It’s an extra layer which gives the past a presence, and it emphasises the way Fagan describes her own historical research—in situ, in archives—as attempts at empathy. For instance, chasing down the confession of her great-great-grandmother to the sin of fornication (a sin which resulted in the birth of Fagan’s great-grandfather), she sees ‘a brief, perfunctory, handwritten entry in a logbook’ as ‘a pathway to empathising with her—imagining what it might have been like for her to bear an illegitimate child in her mother’s home’ (25). This closeness is what Fagan seems to have searched for, but most of the time she finds history wanting. The bitter sweetness of any attempt to capture the past is one of the driving cogs of this book.
But it is only one of the cogs. There is also the matter of mothers. Two strong and complex women become the focus of What Will Be Worn, as Fagan extends her deep and nuanced empathy to her mother, Jill, and her grandmother, Joan. She looks at them as hard as she did the façade of the old McWhirters building, and, while the result is just as startling, sometimes it can be just as difficult to take. This bravery is required though, and even stretches into the way Fagan examines herself: her body is hers because of her mothers, as is the sense of self she articulates, and the clothes of theirs she has pilfered.
All through, Fagan questions inheritance: how it works, what it means, and who might benefit from it. There is a thin edge to this story which asks questions about the role of women in society, in families, and in the broader tales we tell about the past. What’s impressive is the way What Will Be Worn manages to celebrate the stories of women while still offering critique, both of individuals and of the places and times they come from—places and times which, of course, include our own. The book works as both a revisionist history and a compelling family memoir, in which historical patterns repeat, and worlds of fashion, gambling, and shopping mingle with tautly-described love and loss. Fagan never shies from those difficult truths, and never hides how much her family means to her.
What Will Be Worn is, appropriately, a work built from many different threads. This, perhaps, is more than intentional, as the form of a book like this is vital to its function. But that practicality—so like the clothes Fagan tells us she likes to wear—is complicated by a deeper concern with aesthetics: she is at once a writer who values outward beauty, and one who seeks something deeper and clearer. Fashion, and the threat of how we appear—as well as the unrelenting bind of family—are themes which require this kind of complexity. This is a bold family history and a memorable one; it is elegantly, delicately, forcefully written, and revels in exactly those sorts of contradictions.
Daniel Juckes is a writer and academic from Perth, Western Australia. He works at Curtin University and at Westerly, and his research and writing interests include the poetics of prose and the representation of the past. His writing has been published in journals such as Axon, M/C Journal, TEXT, Westerly, and Life Writing.