Peggy Frew’s Wildflowers is a challenging and at times cathartic novel that reflects on the construction and performance of femininity and family dynamics. The body of the novel is comprised of an ill-fated journey taken by three siblings – Meg, Nina, and Amber – to an isolated stay in north Queensland. Meg, the eldest, leads the journey to help Amber (whether Amber desires it or not) detox from her addiction to prescription medication.
While the premise suggests this is a novel about three siblings, it is truly a novel about Nina. In contrast to the outbursts and strength of character demonstrated by Meg and Amber, Nina is often relegated to the place of the family observer. She is an anxious, noncommittal accomplice in Meg’s venture, an uncertain middle child attempting to balance between the forceful natures of her sisters.
Nina is written masterfully by Frew; Nina is frustrating, aloof, fearful, and fanciful. Her perspective oscillates between deep affection and admiration for her siblings and a private, shameful frustration or disgust often towards the way she and her sisters successfully or unsuccessfully perform their roles as women. Far from being dislikeable, Nina’s uneven emotional landscape makes her gradual revelations about the world she, Meg and Amber inhabit feel compelling and honest.
Each sister in Wildflowers inhabits a feminine archetype that is always a source of stability and conflict. Strong, motherly, and ordered Meg; mysterious, artistic, and forgetful Nina; the wild beauty and confidence of Amber. These archetypes, assigned since childhood, have pursued each of them well into their thirties and are both impossible to shake off and impossible to sustain.
Many of Nina’s introspective flashbacks throughout the novel reflect on moments where the feminine character phantasm of a sibling dissipates, leaving behind a fracture in Nina’s identity as well. Meg’s and Amber’s collapses are what seem to subconsciously drive Nina’s flakiness; if Nina does not commit to any one construction of herself, then it cannot be broken, even if this leaves her at a ghostly emotional distance from her own experiences.
Frew’s consideration of the way the required, though often unwilling, performance of femininity complicates the relationship between the three siblings is beautifully considered. Much of the novel’s tension comes from Nina’s navigation of these kaleidoscopic selves, and the question of whether she can reconcile them.
Wildflowers is an evocative and introspective character study, and Frew conveys the complex tension between the siblings with care and thoughtfulness.
Wildflowers, Peggy Frew
Publisher: Allen and Unwin
Publication: 30 August 2022