Evocative tale of heritage, hurt and healing

Willie Campbell reviews Holly Ringwald's The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart, published by Fourth Estate/HarperCollins.

Holly Ringland is an author of stories and essays, and this is her first novel. The first chapters of Alice Hart were awarded the Griffith Review's annual writer award.

Set in Australia's Red Centre, on a wildflower farm, the novel exposes the magic of flowers and their meanings, and the power of story, narrative, and cultural heritage in the life not only of Alice, but of her family and those she encounters.

Alice Hart leads an isolated life. Her father says that town is too dangerous for her, so she is with her mother, a gentle soul who is truly alive only when tending her plants or swimming in the sea. The cleansing attributes of both water and fire, along with the risks inherent in both, are clear very early.

Alice and her mother live in fear of the mood swings of this abusive man. Lyrical descriptions of their panic attacks and longings for escape into various fairytale spaces give an almost magical background to the characters, their relationships and the events to which Alice is exposed.

A chance escape into town to the library results in Alice being encouraged by the librarian to get a membership card and borrow a book. The inevitable punishing anger from her father moves her back into fantasy land. Eventually, the use of fire as a cleansing agent results in the death of both parents.

After several days in a coma, Alice wakes to hear a voice repeating stories and encouraging her to listen. Alice has lost her voice. She is collected by a grandmother she has not met and taken to a flower farm in Central Australia to live.

A totally different life now unfolds, as the women who work on the farm (``the Flowers''), a collection of damaged souls who are finding strength and healing in this setting, give exposure to differing personalities, cultural heritages and a modicum of security and love.

In each fresh start or shift in Alice's life, the environment, the flowers, the stories and their magic are re-established as the base for her existence and bring hope.

Ringland's perceptive insights into the inner life of such a person, challenged by overwhelming emotional demands and chaos, and her poetic, sympathetic description of events and human responses, lift this novel above the sheer grind of repeated abuse and rejection.

- Willie Campbell is a Dunedin educator.

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