What Will Be Worn: A McWhirters Story…
About the Book:
Sometimes it seems the most invaluable stories can be found in the unlikeliest of corners.
For all who know Brisbane, McWhirters, a once celebrated department store in Fortitude Valley, is an icon. For Melissa Fagan, it is also the starting point for this remarkable exploration of her mother and grandmother’s lives, and a poignant reminder of the ways in which retail stores and fashion have connected women’s lives across decades.
Behind the dusty shop counters of an Art Deco treasure, Fagan discovers both what has been lost and continues to shine. Ultimately this tender exploration of self and family, so exquisitely written, speaks of the ways in which life so often surprises us and of how the legacies of others can truly enrich our own relationships and lives.
There is so much more to this book than meets the eye. In part, it is a narration of social history, focusing on one family and the legacy they built in the form of McWhirters, a once iconic department store in Brisbane. I loved this aspect of the book, social history being a big interest of mine. From humble beginnings, the McWhirter family, originally hailing from Scotland, can be traced via this meticulous account. However, this book is by no means a chronological history of the family and the department store, rather, it’s an exploration of self, within the context of one’s family history. Yes, there are facts and figures – which I found endlessly fascinating – but there are breaches in truth, creative leanings that give this memoir a certain whimsical quality that served to fill the gaps of history.
Melissa has a wonderfully lyrical way of writing, casting the reader back through time while always connecting the past with the present. It’s in this that the book presents its other self, as raw account of a family that has been fractured multiple times throughout the generations. The honesty was at times discomforting, and I can only admire Melissa in her bravery at putting much of this out there because not only does she tell the story of her family down through the generations, in all its unforgiving glory, she continually pulls it back to her own exploration of who she is, how she has been shaped, and where she wants to go from here. Personally, I prefer the layer of distance fiction affords, but I appreciated the intent of this memoir, and it was incredibly absorbing at times, even if it was more of an exploration of McWhirters the family and all of their drama than a social history on McWhirters the store.
I listened to a memory expert on the radio recently, and the whole discussion was around how unreliable our memories are. How in fact, many of our memories are false. False memories are incredibly easy to acquire and impossible to distinguish from actual memories. Melissa returns to this notion over and over, the unreliability of the memories of family members she spoke with, how her mother would remember something one way while her aunt would remember the same thing entirely different. The unreliability of her own memories. The challenge with a memoir is to perhaps not disguise this, but to own it, and work with it, which Melissa has done with success. Beautifully written, What Will Be Worn is a valuable contribution to Queensland’s documented history.
Thanks is extended to Transit Lounge for providing me with a copy of What Will Be Worn for review.
About the Author:
Melissa Fagan is a writer and editor based in Brisbane, where she also teaches and lectures in creative writing courses at the University of Queensland and QUT. Her fiction and nonfiction have been published in Overland, Kill Your Darlings, Meanjin, QWeekend, and others. At various times throughout her life (but mostly pre-21st century) she has worked as a receptionist, data entry clerk, call centre operator, market research telephonist and editorial assistant. She has also taught swimming and horse-riding and led tours through South East Asia. In 2018 she started a practice-led PhD in travel writing with Curtin University and the University of Aberdeen.
What Will Be Worn
Published by Transit Lounge
Released 1st September 2018
6 thoughts on “New Release Book Review: What Will Be Worn by Melissa Fagan”
Yes, I prefer the layer of distance that fiction affords too – but we are swamped with memoirs lately, aren’t we?
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There seems to be a wave at the moment. I feel like if you’re going to get creative with a memoir in order to fill in the gaps, why not just turn it on its head and write a solid fiction inspired by truth novel. It reminds me a little of reality tv, the kind of ‘finding myself through my story’ documentaries. It’s a style I can only approach sparingly because it can sometimes be a little…well, dull. The social history and biography angle is more my thing for non-fiction focusing on people.
Yes, exactly. And I’m afraid I don’t agree with the adage that everyone has a story to tell, as you say, some lives are actually quite ordinary, and many of them are just a mask for navel-gazing, using the life of someone else (so often, the author’s mother!) to do some soul-searching.
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I started reading this book with great anticipation. I loved the Valley as a child. It was a beautiful place to be. Especially McWhirters. Especially at Christmas. The Santa Land on the roof. The glamorous assistants. The escalators. The delicious tea room. When I read the first chapter, I realised with dismay, that this book was going to over promise and under deliver. I wanted to read about McWhirters. The business itself. How the store glowed and attracted thousands of customers. The dresses. The Christmas celebrations. Although I acknowledge this is an important part of the McWhirter story, I didn’t want to read about the endless accounts of family problems etc. The book needed to be structured better and a few more edits would have helped. A chapter celebrating how customers enjoyed McWhirters, in the context of the Valley during the 1940 – 1980 period would have been an apt addition to the book. Overall, a very disappointing read.
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Oh, Maree, I can really see how this would have disappointed you given you have memories of the store! I would have liked to read about those things as well. That’s the difference, I suppose, between memoir and non-fiction. I’m developing a preference for non-fiction over memoir more and more!
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