“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.”
As far as opening lines go, that’s a pretty powerful one, especially for a debut novel. Alice is not thinking in metaphors, either. Enamoured with the myth of the phoenix she has read in one of her beloved storybooks, she is thinking about how she can literally set her father on fire so he might rise renewed from the ashes.
And with that, we are launched into the world of the Hart family.
Alice does get her wish, albeit not in the manner she had hoped and the consequences will plague her for the rest of her life. Although, as it turns out, her heritage is filled with such plagues of misery and poor decisions, secrets, lies, and curses, so she’s on track.
If I sound a tiny bit cynical, it’s because I am. But I’ll start with the good.
Like many people, I was drawn to this book for the jaw-dropping beauty of its cover and the praise on the back cover singing the beautiful, life-affirming story that awaited me within. The beauty of the cover is peppered throughout the book with some gorgeous floral illustrations. It’s clear the designers and illustrators had a lot of fun with this, and as far as aesthetics go, it’s one of the best covers I’ve come across. Each chapter is headed with the name of a native flower and what its ‘language’ is; devised by the author herself, with a short description of its properties. I loved this! Having been too lazy to do any real research around Australian native botanicals, I devoured these little vignettes greedily, feeling a little thrill when there was a flower I recognised.
Ringland has some wonderful lyrical descriptions in here, and the way she evokes the vastness of Australian landscapes is spot on. She does the ecological differences of moving from the coast to inland Australia brilliant justice. The thing with lyrical descriptions is that they shine most when you use them sparingly, allowing the reader a moment to breathe in the writing. When every other sentence is vying for pure lyricism and evocation of the senses, it just starts to feel a bit tedious, and long-winded to say the least.
After burning down the family home, Alice lands in the care of her Grandmother, June, whom she previously didn’t know existed. At Thornfield, the flower farm that has been in the family for generations, Alice is introduced to the group of women who work there—the ‘Flowers’—all of whom have sought the farm out for various traumatic reasons. One staple character is called Candy Baby, who loves to bake, has blue hair, cupcake earrings, and chipped mint green nail polish. There will be some readers who will love this characterisation. I am not one of them. Especially when the other prominent character at the farm, Twig, is not given quite so much airtime, despite being a more important character in the scheme of Australian trauma. Ringland tip-toes around this character’s heritage story, hinting at an Indigenous background and children who were taken away by the state. It’s never really made explicit and I feel many non-Australian readers would miss and not understand the terrible history this speaks to.
We learn the background of Alice’s parents and June’s own melancholy love story, but this story is kept hidden from Alice. There’s some long-winded conversation around how if June starts telling it she’ll have to tell other stories of the family history, stories we as the reader already know by this point, and which to me, weren’t really that dramatic. Much of the previous trauma and loss in June’s life has been down to lack of communication and facing up to difficult conversations, so it irked me that as a mature woman with several traumatised women under her wing, she would just repeat the same narrative. June acknowledges ‘history repeating itself’ but acts as though she is powerless to change it when in reality, history seems only to be repeating itself because of her actions or inability to act.
Anyway, some lies spill out and Alice flees Thornfield, heads to Alice Springs, and tries to lose (or find) herself in a new life working at a National Park. Again, the descriptions of this incredibly unique part of Australia are spot on, as is the tension between the sacred place and the relentless influx of tourists. Ringland lived and worked in a similar area herself, and this is one of a few ties to the author’s own life referenced throughout the book. It’s around this point that the plot seems to unravel. Everything from here on in feels crammed in and rushed. Ringland is desperate for us to see Alice as someone special, an outsider who doubts herself but whom everyone she comes into contact with can see is really, truly special. And she spends a great deal of time explaining this to us over and over, from individual character monologues to characters commenting that another character thinks she’s special, to each character telling Alice directly how special she is. My eyes started to ache from all the rolling.
A delicate flower of a character, Alice’s propensity for fainting, sighing, and swooning will have you double-checking you didn’t miss the part where the story is actually a period drama (not least when she collapses to her knees when a love interest removes his sunglasses and looks at her). There are flashes of a stronger Alice throughout the dialogue when she stands up to June and insists she doesn’t need saving to a periphery male character. I liked seeing this fire come out in her but it is, unfortunately, undermined with the commencement of a problematic love interest in the second half of the book.
Ultimately, I felt this story was about circles. It seemed to be a recurring theme, cropping up in flower garlands, petal circles, and the landscapes. Alice herself is continually running in circles, trying to find not only the answer to her burning questions but also safety, finally returning to Thornfield to close her own metaphorical family loop.
I picked this book up wanting an easy read, and it did serve that purpose in that the prose demanded nothing from me. Ringland is more than happy to give us everything on a plate; there’s no guesswork required. About a third of the way through I found myself reflecting that the book read like a mini TV drama series, and was unsurprised to see that it is indeed being made into a TV series.
I definitely understand the popularity and loving readership this book has found. It is full of a particular brand of whimsy that many people will adore. I already know several friends who I will be highly recommending this book to as I know they would love it far more than me. I get the feeling that writing this was particularly healing for Ringland herself, and there is a lot of raw emotion that has been poured into the story.
It was just a little bit too much for me personally.
The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart
400 pages. 2018.