Wildflowers is the first book I’ve read by Peggy Frew and I’m torn. Frew’s certainly a talented and emotive writer but I wasn’t as enamoured as I could have been… or perhaps expected to be. I think it’s predominantly because the backcover blurb suggests that the three sisters travel to Far North Queensland to support the youngest to detox in the present. So when the book opens and we meet the middle sister, Nina, I assumed the trip (and main story arc of the book) was yet to come. But instead we discover the trip took place in the past. And that threw me a little. (Though) I’m not sure why.Wildflowers
by Peggy Frew
Published by Allen & Unwin
Source: Allen & Unwin
Genres: Literary Fiction
Meg and Nina have been outshone by their younger sister Amber since childhood. They have become used to living on the margins of their parents' interest, used to others turning away from them and towards charismatic Amber.
But Amber's life has not gone the way they all thought it would, and now the three of them are together for the first time in years, on the road to a remote holiday rental in Far North Queensland, where Meg and Nina plan on helping Amber overcome her addiction. As good intentions gradually become terrifying reality, these sisters will test the limits of love and the line between care and control.
So the book opens with Nina who – for a few weeks it seems – seems to have been packing up her life and her house is strewn with boxes. Though she had (and can afford to buy) clothes, she steals bags from thrift stores, returning the clothes after wearing them. And she chooses ill-fitting clothes – men’s, women’s… whatever she can find.
She seems to be living on eggs, snippets of rocket from her garden and whatever leftovers she can pilfer from lunch trays in her workplace. She’s put her phone away and avoiding calls from her sisters and mother.
We’re given no explanation for her frame of mind and teary demeanour. She’s obviously struggling with some mental health issues and it was unclear (to me, who appreciates knowing these things!!!!) if these were the result of something physiological or some past trauma. It was weird though as I wondered how on earth she’d be in a position to go away to help her younger sister… unless it ‘snapped’ her out of her current situation.
However… it’s the contact from Amber and the appearance of oldest sister Meg in the present, that has Nina reminiscing (in a bad way) the sisters’ trip to Far North Queensland five years earlier.
We stay in the past for a while and this is where I struggled because – though I’d been intrigued by Nina-in-the-present, I didn’t like ANY of the sisters in the past. The trip itself, the planning and the way it played out just didn’t gel at all. We dipped back and forth in time so learned more about the girls growing up and I was interested in the respective roles they played and how that does (or rather doesn’t) translate into the present.
We learn that Amber went from potential child star in her early to mid teens to addict within the blink of an eye. And – through memories and confrontations – we see how her parents and sisters responded.
And then we’re back to the present AND I really loved the last part of this book. It reminded me of Love Objects, Happy Hour and Everything is Beautiful). I know we needed the context of the middle, but (for me) it didn’t fully explain Nina’s behaviour and I felt there were still some plot holes.
Despite the sense this didn’t flow in the way I expected and we didn’t necessarily get the answers I wanted, I ultimately realised something. That this is not really about Amber, or even the relationship between the sisters and / or their parents, it’s about Nina. And there’d been hints and glimpses all along.
She followed her sisters into the tunnel. A blackness had come over her. She receded into it, away from whatever else might, if she let it, happen in her mind and body—which was something much too big and too terrible to be allowed. Which was–okay, she knew what it was, and she couldn’t let it be there because it was so big and terrible and rending that it would break her: it was the apparently impossible combination of love and disappointment. p 295
Wildflowers by Peggy Frew was published in Australia by Allen & Unwin and is now available.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.