SOW THE SEED

THEY SAY YOU CAN’T JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS COVER. SOME­TIMES THEY’RE WRONG

The Gold Coast Bulletin - Gold Coast Eye - - GARDEN - WORDS: JOHN AF­FLECK

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.’’

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