The Saturday Paper
Peggy Frew’s fourth novel begins within a mysterious, willed stasis. Nina, 37 and living by herself, has begun “not caring”. She eats mostly leftover scraps of food at the cafeteria at the hospital where she works. She begins wearing only the ill-fitting second-hand clothes and underwear she takes at night from outside the local op-shop. She stops washing. Her mother, Gwen, and her two sisters, Amber and Meg, have been phoning her, but Nina doesn’t answer or return their calls. Is she preparing to die, or wanting to disappear?
In one afternoon reverie, she gazes out her window at a vacant lot, a place where people have dumped “broken bikes, prams, children’s car seats”, and she notices “sprays of little flowers”. Are they wildflowers, she wonders, “or just flowering weeds”? In this brief, subtle moment, the heart of the novel suggests itself. What might grow in a seemingly abandoned, empty place?
Wildflowers traverses territory similar to Frew’s earlier novels: how people respond to trauma; the knots of things said and unsaid within families; the opacity of our own actions, buffeted as we are by love and circumstance.
Our initial questions around Nina’s withdrawal soon recede as the narrative focuses on the family’s excruciating, perennial dilemma: the youngest sister Amber’s struggle with addiction, initially to heroin and then to prescription painkillers. As a child she evinces an uncanny charisma and is catapulted into a burgeoning career as an actor, relegating Nina and Meg to her shadow. Amber’s parents, Gwen and Robert, though sensitive and kind, are ill-equipped to navigate this world – to ensure she is protected.
At a feature film shoot, the family observes the 14-year-old Amber with awe and bewilderment. In the middle of the night she goes missing and, when she is finally found, it is clear that something terrible has happened to her. For a long time afterwards, Amber refuses to speak of the event, eating only reluctantly. She does emerge, but she has lost her ease in the world.
Amber acts as a kind of black hole. Her restless energy, overlaid by trauma, then addiction, exerts a magnetic force of worry on her parents and sisters that ripples outward to infect all their relationships. Amber herself is inaccessible – to her family and to the reader. I kept wanting to hear her thoughts, as conflicted as they might be, if only to get a better sense of what it feels like to be her, an object of others’ vexation.
In a recent interview, Frew says that in the process of writing Amber, she “rapidly realised that writing about addiction becomes boring really quickly”. Addiction, indeed, evacuates character, replacing nuance and possibility with blunt, repetitive need. Of course, many astute and powerful novels and memoirs have been written from within addiction. But Wildflowers is much more concerned with the profound collateral damage, the cumulative toll of seemingly doomed concern.
Each family member reacts differently.
Gwen, the mother, is both stoic and vigilant, buoyant and stricken. Robert, the father, is perpetually distracted by beauty and routine, either as escape or compensation. Both parents interpret minor progress as solution. Meg is the problem-solver, the conscientious, self-selected martyr. Nina, by contrast, is hesitant, unsure, detached even in her own life. The novel’s acute pathos emerges gradually through the tension between these various patterns of response.
Nina is continually dragged out of herself by Meg in various attempts to “save” Amber. The two older sisters conspire to take Amber on a holiday as a pretence for an intervention, where they aim to help her get clean. Nina agrees with the plan despite herself, sensing its absurd ambition, and becomes increasingly distraught at the thought of what Meg is planning and how Amber may respond.
So this is not the sepia-tinged, intertwined sisterhood of young women that is suggested by the book’s cover image. Wildflowers is instead a cumulatively tense novel of awkwardness, impossible dilemmas, and slow-motion grief. There is love between Nina, Meg and Amber, but it is a love that has to reckon with its own imperfections.
There are unfortunate moments, small but significant, in which disabled people appear in the novel not as fully rounded characters in themselves but as what theorists David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder refer to as a “narrative prosthesis”.
Frew is exceptional, though, in her ability to allow subtle insights to emerge from minor details, and in her unsparing, heartbreaking depiction of Nina’s psychology and history. Wildflowers is, beyond its significant narrative pull, a haunting archaeology of selfhood, of how sexual and relational agency is impaired and shaped in many complex ways.
From the outside, Nina might be seen as frustratingly passive and immature. Yet from within this reticence and self-consciousness, wisdom fitfully emerges. Her first sexual encounter is with a university tutor who pays her particular attention, as if saying, “There’s something special about you”. In bed, “Nina, trying to muster a Jean Rhys kind of jaded acceptance, had to keep batting away the word probe...” Averse to the feeling of his body, she begins to imagine another man touching her, in another room “flooded with light and [which] smelled of sunshine”, then watching herself as the object of this man’s pleasure, feeling his fascination, becoming him.
Through Nina’s ungainly awakening, her hurt and withdrawal, the novel reminds us that the question is never just how to care for others but rather how to be somebody who can be in a relationship.
Allen & Unwin, 344pp, $32.99