SOW THE SEED
THEY SAY YOU CAN’T JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS COVER. SOMETIMES THEY’RE WRONG
T he spray of Australian Outback wildflowers spread across a brooding black background on the cover of The
Lost Flowers of Alice Hart speaks volumes. Holly Ringland, author of this powerful debut novel, is taking the literary world by storm, with the rights sold to 20 territories already including the UK, Canada, Germany and France. The former Gold Coast schoolgirl’s breakthrough book tells the story of a child, Alice, who suffers with her mother the physical and emotional violence of an abusive father and then, when tragedy leaves her orphaned, the struggle to learn who she really is as she grows up on a wildflower farm run by June, the grandmother she had never met until her parents perished.
Ringland focuses on her own lifetime of yin and yang, and uses for the book her experiences of love and trauma, of growing up barefoot in first her grandmother’s tropical garden and then her mother’s garden at Biggera Waters, of wandering the national parks of North America, and of living and working in a remote indigenous community in Central Australia. All that experience has been merged with years of study and immersing herself in creative writing and higher degrees, to produce what might well prove to be a landmark work on Australia’s troubled social landscape.
This is a brave story that strikes a chord in so many ways. It speaks of pain, but also redemption, survival and renewal — much like the legend of the mythical phoenix that rose renewed from the ashes, which the child hopes will also be her father’s story.
As all good writers should, Ringland goes straight to the conflict as she begins this tale.
“In the weatherboard house at the end of the lane, nine-year-old Alice Hart sat at her desk by the window and dreamt of ways to set her father on fire…’’
Her pregnant mother, Agnes, is sporting a new bruise, “purple like the sea at dawn’’, further evidence of the volatility of her unpredictable father’s temper. This part of the story is sadly familiar to too many families as our nation grapples with a crisis of domestic violence. Ringland has previously admitted to having lived with male violence in one form or another, in different parts of her life and relationships. But questioned whether the book has an important role to play in arresting brutality, or in being a beacon of hope for women who have been abused, she is coy. “I dedicated The Lost
Flowers of Alice Hart in part to women who doubt the worth and power of their story,’’ she says. “It’s for any reader who has ever felt like their voice has been silenced. This book is for those who believe that stories can be the kind of magic that has the ability to change our lives.’’
Like Oggi, the boy who befriends Alice when she is orphaned by the fire that kills her parents and she is taken to her grandmother’s farm, which is a place for women to work, live and seek haven away from the cruelty that drove them there.
Alice and Oggi are bullied by the other kids at the small country school near the farm because they are different. Oggi’s family is from eastern Europe and Alice has lost her voice from the trauma of the fire.
June is also weighed down by regrets and lost opportunities. As she walks one day through the rows of flowers at her farm, Thornfield, and gazes at the seedling houses her mother built, she longs to have just one more conversation with her own mother.
“Knowing that Alice is aching for Agnes in the same way tormented June,’’ Ringland writes. “History’s inclination to repeat itself was nothing but cruel.’’
The injustices of all that cruelty build up and explode in a moment of fury for Alice when she reads an inscription inside the cover of a book, also about a familiar character named Alice, on a shelf in the Thornfield homestead. The inscription is the key to much of the mystery of the past that Alice is attempting to unlock but has been kept hidden from her. When she eventually regains her voice, the story moves to a new phase — but not before tears are shed by characters and indeed the reader.
Alice in the years that follow also falls into an abusive relationship in the desert, but her story will not be that of her mother’s.
There are two schools of thought on writing fiction: write what you know, versus write what you don’t know about.
Ringland has put so much of herself and her time into writing this, it is as though all the experience and study in her life have been directed at this single story.
“I would say that’s fair,’’ she says when asked if that is a reasonable assessment of her creative life so far. “At the same time, it feels like I’m only just getting started.’’
Ringland lives for much of the year in Manchester, England, where she and partner Sam are lucky to have a small garden that becomes a project each spring after the long, dark northern winter. When she returns to Australia each year, her mother’s garden “out Beaudesert way’’ provides joy for her Queensland-bred heart as she gazes at and listen to its native trees, flowers and birds.
“Thornfield was modelled on the gardens of the women who raised me, as well as the gardens they took me to,’’ she says.
Authors are notoriously guarded about their next work. Ringland is certainly so, but hints at something wonderful on her literary horizon — again, through mining her experience and her family past. “After finishing the final edits to Lost
Flowers in January, I’m now exploring reading for pleasure again,’’ she says. But amid the pleasure lies creative spark. “(I’m) letting my mind wander and daydream with whispers of the next story that has been calling to my heart, inspired by my Danish ancestors, 19th century women fairytale writers, and women with tattoos.’’ Intrigued, we beg for more. But the author is unmoved and laughs. “I can’t say anything more.’’