The Black Dress by Deborah Moggach – A lively and timely look at the life of an older woman in London

The Black Dress by Deborah Moggach

Pru is the narrator of a contemporary story of relationships, memories and several surprises. As a narrator she is perhaps a little unreliable, and she is certainly quite overtaken by her emotions as she tries to cope with several domestic blows. As a seventy year old woman she has strong views on men, romance, her best friend and memories of the past; she wants love and friendship. Her children are in other countries with their own lives and show little interest in being in touch with her. Left on her own she becomes depressed and desperate, and when she sees a special black dress in a charity shop she buys it on impulse. She has mistakenly attended the wrong funeral at a busy crematorium, and this gives her an idea for an activity which offers hope as well filling time. 

This is a quietly ambitious novel in which a woman seems to break a lot of rules while trying to avoid dwelling in the past.  It has much to say about the changing nature of parts of London and lifestyle choices, seen through the eyes of an older woman. The writing is lively, the dialogue  is often sharp, and altogether it is a very quirky and memorable book. I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it. 

The Prologue concerns Pru buying a black dress in a charity shop. An unusual find, it fits and suits her well, and it triggers an idea. She explains to the reader what is going on throughout the novel, but her questionable reliability means that she holds back on certain facts. Her first line is “It was a sort of madness.”, as she goes on to reveal that her husband of many years, Greg, has departed, leaving her to cope with an “insanely lonely” life in a “stagnant house with no other person to stir the air”. With her children abroad and having outgrown most of her friends, the only person she can turn to is Azra, a free spirit, a woman who seems to thrive on being unconventional. Formerly known as Linda, she lives in a small flat, apparently has unconventional relationships and has a unique dressing style. After Greg’s departure she urges Pru to take action and find a new relationship. She does not, however, suggest Pru’s plan to use her black dress; to attend the funerals of unknown women in order to get close to the new widower. Pru is aware it is a morally dubious enterprise, trying to establish a relationship with a recently bereaved man, and yet it becomes an occupation which largely consumes her. She looks for funeral notices in papers and chooses a service to attend. Her plan seems to have some success, unlike the rest of her life when she seems to be immobilised by her memories and grief and her husband’s desertion. As she ventures to risk more, there are many surprises to come in this unusual novel. 

This is a very readable book with some amazing characters. It is essentially contemporary, with some vivid descriptions of how members of families have different interpretations of the past, how areas of London change, and how people struggle to understand others. It presents a unique picture of life for an older woman left largely alone in later life, and a powerful story by a somewhat unreliable narrator. It is a memorable and important read with a great deal of impact, as well as some lively and funny moments. I recommend it as an insightful and timely novel.