Thursday, August 9, 2018

Review: The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart

I was looking forward to reading The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart, Holly Ringland's debut novel, the second I found out it was set in Australia. I've visited Australia twice now over the last 4ish years and it's one of my favourite places. This novel totally lived up to my expectations because the settings were magical and played such an important part in this great book.

Here's the synopsis:
An enchanting and captivating novel about how our untold stories haunt us — and the stories we tell ourselves in order to survive.
After her family suffers a tragedy, nine-year-old Alice Hart is forced to leave her idyllic seaside home. She is taken in by her grandmother, June, a flower farmer who raises Alice on the language of Australian native flowers, a way to say the things that are too hard to speak.
Under the watchful eye of June and the women who run the farm, Alice settles, but grows up increasingly frustrated by how little she knows of her family’s story. In her early twenties, Alice’s life is thrown into upheaval again when she suffers devastating betrayal and loss. Desperate to outrun grief, Alice flees to the dramatically beautiful central Australian desert. In this otherworldly landscape Alice thinks she has found solace, until she meets a charismatic and ultimately dangerous man.
Spanning two decades, set between sugar cane fields by the sea, a native Australian flower farm, and a celestial crater in the central desert, The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart follows Alice’s unforgettable journey, as she learns that the most powerful story she will ever possess is her own.
As I said, the settings of this book were incredibly important to the overall story. It reminded me a lot of Anne of Green Gables and Lucy Maud Montgomery's other books. Anne and PEI are intertwined - you can't think of one without picturing the other - and her imagination and way she viewed the natural world around her are a huge reason the series is so delightful. Ringland does something similar with her novel and Alice. Plus, not only are the settings at the heart of each story but Alice and Anne have a lot in common. They're both orphans and neither had an ideal upbringing. Then, when they're still quite young, they're wrenched from the world and home they knew and brought somewhere completely different. And, coincidentally, red earth ends up being important to both women. (For Anne that's the dirt of PEI but you'll have to read Ringland's book to fully understand the importance to Alice.)

Plus, as a special added bonus, I'm fairly certain I've been in the areas Ringland imagined up for Alice. She notes in her Author's note that she made up the towns and National Park Alice visits later in the novel. But, based on the description of where Alice grew up and then moved to as well as where Ringland herself grew up, I was pretty sure the story took place somewhere near the Gold or Sunshine Coasts. Then, when I read the "In Gratitude" section, Ringland notes that she grew up on the land of the Bundjalung people. That's the area of of Australia I've been to and, like I said, I absolutely adore it. How can you not:

A photo I took the last time I was at Point Danger
Speaking of the Bundjalung people...I'm really glad Ringland made the stories of Australia's Aboriginal people of such high importance. I feel like their stories are continuously glossed over or completely erased and I hate it. (This is a fact in Australia and in Canada, where I live. We're getting better but we have so much more to do.) When I first went to Australia I climbed Mount Warning. It was an almost 9 kilometre (5.5 mile) round trip at an elevation of 1,159 m (3,802 ft). I wanted to throw up and/or cry while doing it (OK, I'm pretty sure I did actually cry) but I climbed the thing. The view was stunning:

A photo my boyfriend took on his second trip to Australia
But how does this relate to the book? Well, when I was planning for my last trip back in November, I thought that I'd give the climb another try. I was working out regularly and was pretty sure I would be able to make it up without shedding any tears. I wanted to check out the details to send to my friend who was coming with us when I started doing more reading. I had forgotten/not paid enough attention the last time that Mount Warning's original name, given to it by the Bundjalung people, is Wollumbin. It is considered a sacred space and they do not want people climbing it. I immediately knew I couldn't climb it again. The thought of knowingly ignoring the wishes of the people whose land had been taken away from them made me almost as nauseous as when I tried to climb the mountain (karma?). I appreciated that Ringland told the stories of the Aboriginal people (even though she made up the Park and tribe) and how they did not want people picking flowers or taking dirt from the park. It might seem trivial but it's really not. And, again, I'm so glad Ringland put focus on it.

Now that I've gushed about the natural setting of the novel, how about the rest of it? It was delightful in a heart-wrenching, family drama kind of way. Alice is a character who will completely get under your skin and you won't be able to rest until you find out how her story ends. Which I really want to talk about but that would be a spoiler so I have so many thoughts I need to hold in. Bah.

Oh, and I just loved how each chapter started with a line drawing, name, meaning, and description of Australian flowers.

This flower has particular significance to the story. 
The novel is well-written though I sometimes found the intentional vagueness irritating. Ringland doesn't exactly say when the novel takes place but I think it starts in the past when Alice is 9 and then she's 26 in present day. I can see why she wouldn't want to make it specific because then the story will have a more timeless quality but it was actually really distracting for me. So was not knowing where the book was taking place but that was my own personal thing :) Other than that tiny annoyance, I thought the story flowed well considering it starts when Alice is 9, has a brief stop when she's 17ish, and then ends at 26. The story wasn't overly flowery (ha...pun intended) and, though it may seem contradictory to how much I swooned over the descriptions of the scenery, it wasn't bogged down in descriptive language. And yet I could still perfectly picture the settings and characters Ringland created.

The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart is unique and, other than Anne, I can't think of any other book like it. Holly Ringland's debut novel is a page-turner that will reach deep into your soul and have you completely engrossed in the story. I think Alice is a character everyone should meet and her story is one that will stick with you long after you've turned the last page.

*An Advance Reading Copy was provided by the publisher, House of Anansi Press, in exchange for review consideration. All opinions are honest and my own.*

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