Review: Vivien Horler
The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart, by Holly Ringland (Pan Books/ Macmillan)
Victorian Britons believed in the language of flowers, that messages could be conveyed in a bouquet by the careful selection of blossoms.
As far back as the 16rth century William Shakespeare was having a go, with the immortal line from Hamlet|: “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray, love, remember.”
And judging by the number of hits you get if you google “language of flowers”, the idea finds resonance today, although you’d need to be a skilled reader of flowers to interpret a message.
Alice Hart’s early years are isolated, spent with her parents near the Australian coast, where her beloved mother cultivates a garden and often sports unexplained bruises. And then there is a terrible tragedy, and Alice, at nine, is sent to live on a flower farm with June, a grandmother she didn’t knew existed.
June has inherited both the farm and its stories, and she provides a sanctuary not only to Alice but to women who have been damaged or broken by life.
When she arrives at the farm a traumatised Alice has lost the ability to speak, but June too keeps silent about the stories of the farm, a silence that will come to haunt her.
Secrecy and a terrible betrayal lead a grown-up and angry Alice to flee the farm and move to Australia’s famed red desert heart, where she becomes a guide at a national park that preserves a meteorite crater, a site of great religious significance to native Australians.
At the centre of the crater is a mass of red flowers, Sturt’s desert peas. In the tales of the local Anangu people, a mother lived in the stars, and one day her baby fell to earth, causing the crater. Distraught, the mother ripped out her heart and threw it down to earth to be with her child, and today it is still there in the rings of blood-red blooms.
At first Alice is happy in the desert so far from the home where she grew up, but there is a further devastating betrayal and Alice realises she has to interrogate her own story if she is to escape the secrets and violence of her own and her family’s past.
The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart has one of the most gorgeous covers I’ve seen, and each chapter is introduced by an illustrated native Australian flower and its meaning. The Cootamundra wattle means “I wound to heal”, the river lily means “love concealed”, spinifex means “dangerous pleasures”, and Sturt’s desert pea means “have courage, take heart”, advice Alice eventually seizes to find redemption.
This is Holly Ringland’s first novel; she is a beautiful writer and has told a wonderful story.