Wildflowers, the kind that burst through the swathes of dry grass along stretches of Australian country highways, seem to exist despite the most unforgiving conditions. Where do they come from? And how do they survive? Peggy Frew asks similar questions of the three sisters at the center of Wildflowers, an intimate story about the roles we are cast in by our family, and our obligations to them.
The Miles Franklin and Stella prize-shortlisted author of Hope Farm has been honing in on questions of identity and family responsibility for some time now, but in Wildflowers she gets right to the heart of things. Nina is 37 and lives alone, her days defined by a series of increasingly odd routines. She is broken, struggling to find meaning in her life, particularly in the wake of an intensely traumatic trip away, when she and her older sister, Meg, effectively kidnap their younger, wilder sister Amber, in an attempt to force her to stop using drugs Nina’s present-day apathy bookends the novel, which for the most part is a flashback to that intense, damaging trip to the rainforest of far-north Queensland.
Nina is unable to understand the deep hunger that drives each of her sisters – for Meg this revolves around family and children, and for Amber it is a hunger for intoxication and the spotlight. In contrast, Nina is a detached observer, harboring a distant curiosity – even about her own life. She describes several formative sexual encounters from the outside in, “watching herself, seeing herself”, as if her body and its actions are autonomous. She has a degree, which she calls “boring”, and seems unambitious almost to the point of catatonia. But Nina’s existence was built on being overlooked, existing in the larger, bolder shadows of each of her sisters.
Frew writes with devastating clarity, articulating the minutiae that speak to our desires – how we wash our hair the day before seeing a crush (rather than the day of, which would leave it too fluffy and soft), how we perform adulthood via lipstick and sex These tiny, telling details reveal as much about her characters (and readers, perhaps) as the larger intimacies we’re privy to – the noises Amber makes, “like a cow giving birth”, as she enters withdrawal, or Nina – during her deep fuge of “not caring” – furtively consuming pizza crusts and coffee dregs left behind by her colleagues. The characters on the periphery of the story – Nina’s parents, her colleague Ursula and her friend Sidney – are less developed, almost ghostly, but Nina, Amber and Meg are laid completely bare in that way siblings so often are, family ties outstripping privacy or pride
Frew examines the moments that define us, those moments we replay over and over, wondering what microcosmic changes we might have made to achieve a different life. She cuts through the intensity of the trip away with flashbacks to scenes from Nina’s past – unfulfilling affairs with mediocre men; failed attempts to reach and rehabilitate Amber – planting the seed that the past repeats itself, regardless of the hopes and good intentions of everyone involved.
Against the deep and unwavering loyalty displayed in the novel, particularly by Meg, Frew asks more discomfiting questions about the arbitrary closeness of family. What is our duty of care towards our immediate family? And how do we balance it against our responsibility to ourselves? Meg justifies her actions as a necessary means to bring their sister back. But where does this leave Amber’s agency? Or Nina’s? Nina grapples with the ethics of their actions and, in turn, the idea that our families retain a version of ourselves that is more real or pure than anything we grow into. More than anything, what the trip away reveals is how little any of them know about each other, and there is a desperation underlying Meg’s attempts to reclaim the lost version of Amber.
When Nina reflects on her own childhood, it isn’t herself she remembers, but Amber. Amber who, “back then, as far as any of them knew, was always going to go on being the Amber she’d always been: an explosion of a person, uncontainably light, harmlessly, gorgeously free”. It’s easy to be fooled, even for most of the book, into thinking that this is a story about Amber, a spirited artist whose trauma and addiction destroys her potential and her relationships. But in a deft sleight of hand Frew keeps our attention on Nina and slowly reveals the woman who is not so easily defined, even to herself.
Towards the end of the novel, as Nina boards a plane with her sisters, she retreats from a thought that is “so big and terrible and rending that it would break her: it was the apparently impossible combination of love and disappointment”. There is something profoundly comforting here, in the space Frew creates; the idea that disappointment is not antithetical to love, but a part of it.