House of Anansi Press

The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart

Written by Holly Ringland

Published August 07, 2018 | ISBN 9781487005238
FICTION / Literary

Cover of The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart

Regular price $18.95 CAD

400 pages
Digital Format

Also Available in Print

About this book

The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart

Holly Ringland

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.

Excerpt

Flannel flower

Meaning: What is lost is found

Actinotus helianthi | New South Wales

The stem, branches and leaves of the plant are a pale grey in colour, covered in downy hair, and flannel-like in texture. Pretty, daisy-shaped flowers bloom in spring, though flowering may be profuse after bushfires.

*

The first story Alice ever learned began on the edge of darkness, where her newborn screams restarted her mother’s heart.

The night she was born, a subtropical storm had blown in from the east and caused king tides to flood the river banks, cutting off the lane between the Harts’ property and town. Stranded in the laneway with her water broken and a band of fire seemingly cutting her in half, Agnes Hart pushed life and a daughter out of her body on the back seat of her husband’s truck. Clem Hart, consumed by panic as the storm boomed over the cane fields, was at first too frantic swaddling his newborn to notice his wife’s pallor. When he saw her face turn white as sand, her lips the shade of a pipi shell, Clem fell upon her in a frenzy, forgetting their baby. He shook Agnes, to no avail. It wasn’t until her daughter screamed that Agnes was jolted to consciousness. On either side of the laneway, rain-soaked bushes burst into a flurry of white flowers. Alice’s first breaths were filled with lightning and the scent of storm lilies in bloom.

You were the true love I needed to wake me from a curse, Bun, her mother would say to finish the story. You’re my fairytale.

When Alice was two years old, Agnes introduced her to books; as she read, she pointed to each word on the page. Down at the beach, she repeated: one cuttlefish, two feathers, three pieces of driftwood, four shells, and five shards of sea glass. Around their house, Agnes’s hand-lettered signs: BOOK. CHAIR. WINDOW. DOOR. TABLE. CUP. BATH. BED. By the time Alice started homeschooling when she was five, she was reading by herself. Though her love of books was swift and absolute, Alice always loved her mother’s storytelling more. When they were alone, Agnes spun stories around the two of them. But never in earshot of Alice’s father.

Their ritual was to walk to the sea and lay on the sand staring up at the sky. With her mother’s gentle voice telling the way, they took winter train trips across Europe, through landscapes with mountains so tall you couldn’t see their tops, and ridges so smothered in snow you couldn’t see the line separating the white sky from white earth. They wore velvet coats in the cobblestoned city of a tattooed king, where the harbour buildings were as colourful as a box of paints, and a mermaid sat, cast in bronze, forever awaiting love. Alice often closed her eyes, imagining that every thread in her mother’s stories might spin them into the centre of a chrysalis, from which they could emerge and fly away.

When Alice was six years old, her mother tucked her into her bed one evening, leant forward and whispered in her ear. It’s time, Bun. She sat back smiling as she pulled up the covers. You’re old enough now to help me in my garden. Alice squirmed with excitement; her mother usually left her with a book while she gardened alone. We’ll start tomorrow, Agnes said before she turned out the light. Repeatedly through the night, Alice woke to peer through the dark windows. At last she saw the first thread of light in the sky and threw her sheets back.

Alice’s mother was in the kitchen making Vegemite and cottage cheese on toast and a pot of honeyed tea, which she carried on a tray outside to her garden alongside the house. The air was cool, the early sun was warm. Her mother rested the tray on a mossy tree stump and poured sweet tea into two teacups. They sat chewing and drinking in silence. Alice’s pulse beat loudly in her temples. After Agnes ate the last of her toast and finished her tea, she crouched between her ferns and flowers, murmuring as if she was rousing sleeping children. Alice wasn’t sure what to do. Was this gardening? She mimicked her mother and sat with the plants, watching.

Slowly, the lines of worry in her mother’s face vanished. Her furrowed brow relaxed. She didn’t wring her hands, or fidget. Her eyes were full and clear. She became someone Alice didn’t recognise. Her mother was peaceful. She was calm. The sight filled Alice with the kind of green hope she found at the bottom of rock pools at low tide but never managed to cup in her hands.

The more time she spent with her mother in the garden, the more deeply Alice understood — from the tilt of Agnes’s wrist when she inspected a new bud, to the light that reached her eyes when she lifted her chin, and the thin rings of dirt that encircled her fingers as she coaxed new fern fronds from the soil — the truest parts of her mother bloomed among her plants. Especially when she talked to the flowers. Her eyes glazed over and she mumbled in a secret language, a word here, a phrase there as she snapped flowers off their stems and tucked them into her pockets.

Sorrowful remembrance, she’d say as she plucked a bindweed flower from its vine. Love, returned. The citrusy scent of lemon myrtle would fill the air as she tore it from a branch. Pleasures of memory. Her mother pocketed a scarlet palm of kangaroo paw.

Questions scratched at the back of Alice’s throat. Why did her mother’s words only flow when she was telling stories about other places and other worlds? What about their world, right in front of them? Where did she go when her eyes were far away? Why couldn’t Alice go with her?

By her seventh birthday, Alice’s body was heavy from the burden of unanswered questions. They filled her chest. Why did her mother talk to the native flowers in such cryptic ways? How could her father be two different people? What curse did Alice’s first tears save her mother from? Although they weighed on her mind, Alice’s questions remained stuck, lodged in her windpipe as painfully as if she’d swallowed a seedpod. Moments of opportunity came on good days in the garden, when the light fell just so, yet Alice said nothing. In silence, she followed her mother as her pockets filled with flowers.

If Agnes ever noticed Alice’s silence, she never said anything to break it. It was understood time spent in the garden was quiet time. Like a library, her mother once mused as she glided through her maidenhair ferns. Though Alice hadn’t ever been to a library — to see more books in one place than she could imagine, or hear the whispers of collective pages turning — she felt she almost had, through her mother’s stories. From Agnes’s description, Alice imagined a library must be a quiet garden of books, where stories grew like flowers.

Alice hadn’t been anywhere else beyond their property either. Her life was confined to its boundaries: from her mother’s garden to the where the cane fields started, to the bay where the sea curled close by. She was forbidden to venture further than those lines, and especially the one that separated their driveway from the lane that led into town. It’s no place for a girl, her father would say, slamming his fist on the dinner table, making the plates and cutlery jump, whenever Alice’s mother suggested sending her to school. She’s safer here, he’d growl, putting an end to the conversation. That’s what her father was most able to do, put an end to everything.

Whether they spent their day in the garden or at the sea, the point always came when a storm bird would call, or a cloud would cross the sun, and Alice’s mother would shake herself awake, as if she’d been sleepwalking through a dream. She became animated, turning on her heel to sprint towards the house, calling over her shoulder at Alice, first one to the kitchen gets fresh cream on her scones. Afternoon tea was a bittersweet time; her father would be home soon. Ten minutes before he was due, her mother would position herself by the front door, her face pulled too tight in a smile, her voice pitched too high, her fingers in knots.

Some days Alice’s mother disappeared from her body altogether. There were no stories or walks to the sea. There was no talking with flowers. Her mother would stay in bed with the curtains drawn against the blanching light, vanished, as if her soul had gone somewhere else entirely.

When that happened, Alice tried to distract herself from the way the air in the house pressed on her body; the awful silence as if no one were home; the sight of her mother crumpled in bed. Those were things that made it difficult to breathe. Alice picked up books she’d read a dozen times already and revisited school worksheets she’d already completed. She fled to the sea to caw with the gulls and chase waves along shore. She ran alongside the walls of sugar cane, throwing her hair back and swaying like the green stalks in the hot wind. But no matter how she tried, nothing felt good. Alice wished on feathers and dandelions to be a bird and fly far away into the golden seam of the horizon, where the sea was sewn to the sky. Day after shadowy day passed without her mother. Alice paced the edges of her world. It was only a matter of time before she learned she could disappear too.

About the Author

Holly Ringland

HOLLY RINGLAND grew up wild and barefoot in her mother’s tropical garden in Northern Australia. When she was nine years old, her family lived in a camper van for two years in North America, travelling from one national park to another, an experience that sparked Holly’s lifelong interest in cultures and stories. In her twenties, Holly worked for four years in a remote Indigenous community in the central Australian desert. She moved to England in 2009 and obtained her MA in Creative Writing from the University of Manchester in 2011. She now lives between the UK and Australia, and is in the final year of her creative writing Ph.D. with Griffith University and King’s College London. Her Ph.D. project examines how traumatic experience can be reformed through the creative writing process. Holly’s essays and short fiction have been published in various anthologies and literary journals. In 2015, the first chapter of The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart (then called The Centre is Red) won Griffith Review’s annual writer award, which included a weeklong fellowship at Varuna House, Australia’s prestigious writing residency.