Book Review: Wildflowers by Peggy Frew: a haunting, witty and compassionate story about sisters

You can be forgiven for wondering what you’ve got yourself into a few pages in with Wildflowers. The narrator, Nina, is clearly not coping and while she’s brilliant at bringing you into the story, the vivd way her world is brought to the page through all the senses, she seems bent on self-destruction. You can’t help asking yourself, how will she make it through the next three hundred odd pages. Peggy Frew has created a brilliant character study of someone at the end of her rope.

In the past month, Nina has boxed up all her clothes, her curtains, her cooking utensils and anything useful, apart from the frypan and spatula she uses to fry her evening egg, eaten out of the pan. She gets her outfit for the day not from her wardrobe but from bags of donated clothing outside a charity shop, raided under cover of darkness. Nothing fits properly and yet she manages to hold down her admin job at the hospital, the staff cafeteria providing left-overs nicked from newly vacated tables

Her Dunlop Volleys flapped a bit. They were better with the Explorers; Archie McNamara’s socks were too thin. Under the tracksuit pants the seam of the satin shorty things seemed intent on bisecting her, and the lace on the too-tight bra was irritating the skin near her armpits.

What has brought Nina to this? The book flips back to the past to describe the events of Nina’s life and in particular her relationships with her sisters, Meg and Amber. Elder sister Meg was always the sensible one, chastising her laid-back parents over how they allow little sister Amber to run wild. Amber is dazzling, gloriously pretty but also with a charisma that is perfect for the stage and she’s soon a child actor in a film. What happens here eventually drives Amber to drug addiction.

Nina is the smart one, but she’s also a ditherer, uncertain what to do with her life. While Meg chooses her study path and makes a go of it, Nina finds student life daunting, blazing through her studies but strangled by shyness. She doesn’t know how to be.

The tremulous romanticism by which she’d been so strongly affected upon first leaving her family – which she’d always felt, but which in the lonesome splendour of her cobwebbed room and with the aid of her poetry classes had crystalised from a homely, unexplained presence into something not unlike a calling – this had not receded. It was melancholy, that’s exactly what it was: a sadness that was exquisite. She was kind of addicted to it. And she found that she couldn’t – simply could not – reveal this aspect of herself to anyone.

She drifts through unsatisfying relationships with men, a habit that continues well into her adult years. While she’s smart, Nina’s not so good at life so it’s not surprising she leaves the Amber problem to her mother and to Meg – until, that is, after years of Amber problems, Meg enlists Nina’s help in a last ditch attempt to cure their little sister.

The novel is threaded through with humour – I love the description of Nina pretending to listen to Meg’s hectoring voice on the phone while cleaning the grout on the bathroom tiles with baking soda, only to discover she’s out of white vinegar and furtively googling whether or not balsamic would work instead. Not everyone enjoys this odd mix of despair with wit – Meg Mason’s utterly splendid Sorrow and Bliss seemed to polarise readers – but for me it it works a treat.

Throw in some lovely, evocative writing – whether describing the rainforest retreat where the girls try to cure Amber, student flats or city scapes, Frew brings Nina’s world to life. This makes her story seem very real and adds to the huge compassion we feel for her as readers. I love this sort of book, and can happily add Peggy Frew’s name to a list I’m gathering of Australian authors, which include Charlotte Wood and Toni Jordan, as well as New Zealand born Meg Mason, who I’m keen to read again. Wildflowers gets a full five stars from me.

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