WWildflowers, the kind that have exploded across swathes of dry grass along Australia’s highways, appear to be there despite the harsher conditions. Where did they come from? How do they survive? Biggie Fro He asks similar questions to the three sisters at the Wildflowers CenterAnd the An intimate story about the roles we play by our family, and our obligations to them.
Miles Franklin Award and Stella, Author of Hope Farm I’ve been honing in on matters of identity and family responsibility for some time now, but in Wildflowers It gets to the heart of things. Nina is 37 years old and living on her own, and her days define a series of increasingly bizarre routines. Shattered, she struggles to find meaning in her life, especially in the wake of an extremely traumatic journey away, when she and her older sister, Meg, kidnap their younger and wild sister Amber, in an attempt to force her to stop using drugs. Nina’s indifference in the present ends the novel, which for the most part is flashbacks of that intense and destructive journey into the rainforests of far north Queensland.
Nina is unable to comprehend the deep hunger that drives each of her sisters – for Meg this is about family and children, and for Amber it is a hunger for intoxication and the spotlight. In contrast, Nina is a detached observer, and has a distant curiosity – even about her own life. She describes many formative sexual encounters from the outside in, “watching herself, seeing herself,” as if her body and his actions were independent. She has a degree, which she calls “boring,” and seems rather unambitious to almost Catatonia. But Nina’s presence is built on her overlook, and her presence in the biggest and boldest shadows of each of her sisters.
Frew writes with devastating clarity, detailing the minute details that speak to our desires—how we wash our hair the day before seeing it crush (instead of the day it’ll leave it too fluffy and soft), how we go about adulthood through lipstick and sex. These subtle, expressive details reveal as much about her characters (and readers, perhaps) as the much bigger friends we get to know – the noises Amber makes, “like a cow giving birth,” when she goes into withdrawal, or Nina – during her lifetime a deep nonsense of “lack of interest” Pizza crusts and coffee grounds left behind by her colleagues. The characters on the fringes of the story – Nina’s parents, classmate Ursula and friend Sidney – are less sophisticated, almost ghostly, but Nina, Amber, and Meg are quite exposed in this way that often, family relationships trump privacy or pride.
Frew examines the moments that define us, those moments that we repeat over and over, wondering what subtle cosmic changes we might have made to bring about a different life. The intensity of the trip pierces away with flashbacks into scenes from Nina’s past – she does not meet relationships with mediocre men; Unsuccessful attempts to reach and rehabilitate amber – planting the seed that brings the past back, regardless of the hopes and intentions of everyone involved.
In exchange for the deep and steadfast loyalty shown in the novel, particularly by Meg, Frew raises more vexing questions about the abusive closeness of the family. What is our duty to our immediate family? How do we balance it with our responsibility to ourselves? Meg justifies her actions as a necessary way to get their sister back. But where does this leave Amber? Or Nina? Nina wrestles with the morality of their actions, and thus the idea that our families hold a version of ourselves that is more real or pure than anything we grow up in. More than anything, what the trip reveals is how little any of them know about each other, and there is a desperation behind Meg’s attempts to recover the lost version of Amber.
When Nina reflects on her childhood, she does not remember herself, but rather Amber. Amber which, “at the time, as far as any of them knew, always continued to be the amber that it always has been: an explosion of a person, unfathomably light, harmless, marvelously free.” It’s easy to be fooled, even for most writers, into thinking this is a story about Amber, a spirited artist whose trauma and addiction destroys her potential and relationships. But in a masterful sleight of hand, Frew maintains our interest in Nina and slowly reveals the indefinable woman, even to herself.
Toward the end of the novel, as Nina is on the plane with her sisters, she squirms with an idea “so big, horrible, and tattered that it would break it: it was a seemingly impossible combination of love and disappointment.” There is something deeply comforting here, in the space that Frew creates; The idea that disappointment is not the opposite of love, but rather a part of it.