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.

Book Review: Dinner with the Schnabels by Toni Jordan – a brilliant, warm-hearted comedy

I love a funny novel, particularly a character driven comedy like this one, which I also imagine would make a terrific movie. Like many comedies, its main character, in this case Simon Larsen, is in trouble. The Covid crisis hit him hard financially. For the last eighteen months he’s had to deal with losing the family home, his architectural business and his self-respect. Now, once he’s got the kids off to school, he struggles to get off the couch. He adores his wife Tansey, who has stepped up as the breadwinner, but if only her family weren’t so superior.

These are the Schnabels of the title: Tansy’s sister Kylie who is career-driven and blunt to the point of rudeness; brother Nick, a good looking former footie star who is forgiven everything by doting mother Gloria. It is always Gloria who calls the shots, and who makes Simon feel even more of a failure.

The Schnabels decide it’s time to hold a memorial service for Tansy’s father who died two years ago but didn’t get the usual send-off because of Covid. They also decide the best place to hold it is in Tansy’s friend Naveen’s garden. But the landscape gardeners Naveen had employed have abandoned the job and left him high and dry. So Simon is asked do the work instead. He’ll earn some cash and get himself off the couch. He has a whole week to accomplish the job so no pressure.

The story is set over the week leading up to the memorial service as events occur to derail Simon’s plans to work in Naveen’s garden. The book begins with Simon’s first day on the job – only Simon’s late because he and Tansy are at the train station. Tansy wants to catch a glimpse of Monica who is arriving by train for the service. Monica is Tansey’s half-sister, the younger offspring of the father who did a bunk, the child he stayed around for. The reader can’t help but wonder why there’s all this effort to create the perfect memorial service for the man who had so little to do with Tansy, Kylie and Nick, the man who ran out on Gloria.

Tansy only wants to see what her younger sister looks like, but bubbly, affectionate Monica ends up catching a lift, and somehow staying with Tansy and Simon. The Larsens live in a poky, two-bedroom flat, but Monica soon settles in, a big, confident personality, determined to make the most of her time in the city. Meanwhile the pressure is on Simon to get on with Naveen’s garden as more and more disasters throw him off-course. Along the way, snippets of Simon’s former life emerge, and in spite of all the disasters, the true character of Simon begins to shine through.

Dinner with the Schnabels is a very Australian comedy – we’re in Melbourne – but the themes are universal. The Covid crisis and its economic fallout, the hero with his one shot at redemption struggling with his demons, the importance of family and the way that blood is thicker than water, even if you don’t always like them very much.. The story builds to a surprising and satisfying ending, as Simon deals with curve-ball after curve-ball. Simon himself is a terrific narrator, far from perfect but oddly likeable. The prose is smart and witty, the dialogue always entertaining. I loved this book and now want to read everything by Toni Jordan. So this novel definitely gets a five out of five from me.