Holly Ringland’s debut novel, The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart (HarperCollins 2018) is a complex and many-layered narrative in which the reader can sense the gravitas of the research underpinning the story. The author’s depiction of place – of landscape, environment, weather, flora and fauna – is incredibly detailed, particularly her descriptions of flowers, which herald the beginning of each chapter, and thread their way throughout the story. Her lived experience in Indigenous communities is also evident. But although heavy on detail, the book maintains a light touch, inviting the reader on a journey that in parts could almost be described as rural romance meets literary fiction meets scientific journal.
The opening sentence is sombre: ‘In the weatherboard house at the end of the lane, nine-year-old Alice Hart sat at her desk by the window and dreamed of ways to set her father on fire’, and it sets the tone for the first section of the book in which we meet young Alice and quickly discover her family situation is not ideal. Without giving anything away, this early passage deals with abuse and domestic violence, and especially a child’s view of such matters; how they assume responsibility or carry the burden of blame, or of fixing the problem. This is the part of the book I enjoyed most. I think Ringland convincingly puts us inside the head of nine-year-old Alice and deals with her traumatic experiences with sensitivity.
Subsequent sections of the book are written from Alice’s perspective as she is older – first as an adolescent, then as a young woman. Again, to say too much would be to give away the story, but suffice to say that the themes of family, trauma, violence and identity are explored, but most particularly that of family. What makes a family? Can you choose your family? What happens to a broken family? How much responsibility should a family member assume for another? What is the link between family and community? All of these questions are asked, but the answers are not always clear-cut.
Alice’s childhood on a flower farm with her grandmother is founded on the Victorian tradition of floriography, or the language of flowers. Every flower has a meaning; native flowers can communicate the things that are too hard to say. This is the most beautiful aspect of the book: the fine descriptions, meanings and interpretations, accompanied by the elegant sketches, and the obvious amount of research into native flora. So too with the Indigenous content; Ringland takes a risk avoided by many white authors by not only including Aboriginal culture, practices and language but even providing the perspective of an Indigenous character. However, she seems to have the credentials (the background research, her own personal experience, and the cultural approval) to write these aspects of the story, and it does seem to be a credible and authentic representation of Aboriginal stories (she has also been very careful to acknowledge the assistance she received, and when she has changed or invented certain aspects).
The last half of the book was less compelling for me – a part of me wanted to return to Alice as a child. But the passage of time – and Alice’s growing maturity – is chronicled, and her choices as an adult allow us to reflect on the similarity of choices made years earlier by the adults in her life when she was a child.
The story has a few inherent mysteries which keep the reader guessing; some of these are neatly tied up in the resolution of the story, while some threads are left, for us to imagine what might happen next. A couple of the plot lines or relationships were perhaps a tad predictable, but Ringland makes up for this by then surprising us with a twist that we didn’t see coming. And the circular structure of the ending is a satisfying connection with the beginning of the story, and gracefully takes us back to that first sentence. This is a story that furrows some emotional ground, plants some poignant seeds, grows some thorny problems and displays some touching blooms. People wither without the right care and attention. Others flourish because of respect and consideration. This is a novel about relationships and family, and about how to encourage the positive growth of both.