The Dress by Sophie Nicholls

Reading about an independently published novel by a first-time novelist who makes it to the top of the Amazon best-sellers’ list sounds like a fairy tale.  But this isn’t the much discussed Amanda Hocking, this is UK author Sophie Nicholls, whose novel, The Dress, has been an E-book sensation.  It isn’t sci-fi, or fantasy, or crime, or erotica, or any of the other ‘fashionable’ genres at the moment – just straight-forward fiction likely to appeal to a predominantly female audience right across the age spectrum.

Of course, as it implies in the title, ‘It all began with a dress….’  This is an unashamedly romantic novel – romantic in the best sense – not really a love story, but a novel that has a deep belief in the intrinsic goodness of individuals, that ‘all manner of things will come to good’ in the end.  It’s also a coming of age story, about a young girl of mixed heritage, whose life so far has been nomadic, finding out who she is and where she belongs.

But it was the writing, rather than the plot summary, that persuaded me to buy it. In the sample I downloaded, it was obvious that here was a writer who loved words.  When I read,  ‘It was a simple dress, a slip of oyster-coloured silk, made to fall over the body like a sigh of pleasure’,  I could feel the silk sliding over my own shoulders with just the faintest rustle of sensuality.  And Fabbia’s dress-making, the embroidering of secret words into the seams of the garment, are really part of a grand metaphor for the stitching of the story. Not a simple story, as Fabbia’s daughter Ella reveals,  ‘it has complicated seams and concealed fastenings.  It has deep pockets and interfacings that won’t sit quite true…..   You’ll have to forgive me if at times I’m clumsier than I ought to be.  Mamma didn’t believe in following a pattern.  She taught me to trust the fabric itself, letting the texture and colour of it find its own form on the cutting table…..’

Sophie Nicholls is a poet, her short (and excellent) collection Refugee is published by Salt, who have an eye for good writing, so she knows about form.  This novel is beautifully shaped to tell the story.

Ella and Fabbia have arrived in York, where Fabbia is going to open a small shop selling ‘vintage’ clothes as well as hand-made-to-measure garments.   Ella is the story-teller, daughter of the beautiful, mysterious Fabbia, who conceals her origins in pre-revolutionary Iran, having been brought up in the hills outside Tehran by her grandmother Madaar-Bozorg.  Ella has never met her great-grandmother, and knows little of ‘the old country’ her mother comes from.  She is reserved, courageous, and determined to find somewhere she belongs.

Fabbia, widowed before Ella was born, intends to begin yet another new life. Her clientele in York includes the snobbish ‘ladies who lunch’, one of whom sets out to create trouble for Fabbia and her daughter.  The novel touches on deeper issues – the problems of integration for immigrants to Britain, and the feelings of alienation and displacement felt by their children even if they are born here.  There is no getting away from the words, or the labels; ‘Foreigner.  Dirty Arab.  Osama bin Laden.  Terrorist cell.  Excuse me, madam, may I see your papers?  Passport?  How long do you intend to stay here?  Taking our jobs.  Why don’t you just go home?’

Ella feels cut off from her heritage because her mother doesn’t want her to learn ‘the old language’ – Farsi – and tells Ella stories in English.  These stories are embedded in the text, folk-tales handed on from generation to generation and you get a sense of continuity in the novel, of all the mothers and grandmothers standing behind Ella and Fabbia and Maadar-Bozorg in a continuous line.  Story-tellers.  Makers.

The novel is elegantly structured.  Each section has its own sartorial tag.  Chapter 1 is ‘Man’s black overcoat.  Marks and spencer.  2007′.    Chapter 4 ‘A plume of emerald-green feathers with Swarovski crystal clip.  Bespoke stage costume jewellery from Paris.  1990s.’  Chapter 2 ‘A pair of leopard-print shoes, platform heels.  Late 1950s.  Size 37.’  These little epigrams are part of the story, headings that tell you where you are and where you might be going.  And then at the end, the author hands the reader the story to make into something that is their own.  Stop for a moment, the writer orders you.  ‘Lift your arms over your head – there, that’s right, just like that – and all the rustle of it, the gatherings of it, to settle over your body, just so.  And now it’s your story, yours to make and remake again, in your way, until it’s perfect.’

Some people have found the ending too abrupt, the novel too short, but I didn’t.  I’m tired of bloated compendiums that stretch the material out to breaking point.  Books that dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s bore me.  I want the characters to carry on wandering around in my imagination after I’ve finished reading.  Sophie knows how to tell a story succinctly, the book has a fascinating structure and she knows how much space to leave the reader. The Dress made me want to read more of Sophie Nicholls’ work.  She should be taking her place among the best-selling mainstream authors – Kate Morton, Adele Geras, Joanne Harris – because she’s good enough.  Her fans will be glad to know that she’s now working on a sequel, though writing more slowly than the first novel because there’s a very new baby competing with the book for attention.

I find it really interesting that a talented young author, already published by someone like Salt, chose to publish a novel on Kindle as her first option, particularly one that has such obvious commercial potential.   Apparently it was Sophie’s father’s suggestion, after he’d read about Amanda Hocking’s success in the newspapers.  But it was the speed of publication that appealed to Sophie rather than the very long time-line you get with a traditional publisher.

Even more interesting is the story of how, without any hype, publicity or web net-working, The Dress reached the Amazon top 20 within a couple of months of Kindle publication.  Sophie thought that the first sales spike was a fluke, but the book carried on selling and quickly rose to number 1. It’s a lesson for every E-author – if your material is good enough and there are enough people out there who want it, you can make it without the backing of the publishing juggernauts!

 Reviewed by Kathleen Jones  who will be  interviewing Sophie Nicholls about the novel on the Authors Electric Blog on 5th August.

The Dress is available in Kindle format

Read about the evolution of Sophie’s next fiction project and her thoughts on motherhood and creativity.