Saturday, 14 April 2012

Contemporary Book Review No. 1 - Vanessa Diffenbaugh 'The Language of Flowers'.

Vanessa Diffenbaugh's 'The language of Flowers', a Christmas gift from my partner's mother (aptly named after an aromatic flowering herb), took me a couple of reading spurts to complete. This was not because it wasn't captivating, but because it was very rich in emotional language and evoked such a mixed bag of memories and feelings that to read it in full would have been like eating a whole box of chocolates at once.
One of my close friends used to live on a flower farm in Central Victoria, and I was honoured to accompany her on one of those 3am runs that Victoria (the novel's protagonist) eludes to having to be desperate to go through with. Getting up at that hour is not easy, Victoria is quite right, and I certainly wasn't prepared for the other-worldliness of entering the Melbourne Flower Markets to set up shop with my friend. I am sure that I was more a hindrance than a help, because the lack of sleep mixed with the disorientation that comes from trying something new meant I was really only capable of carrying out basic tasks. I had deliberately put the occasion in the back of my memory bank, only to be fished out by the reading of this book, accompanied by a myriad of adjacent life experiences and their accompanying emotions. 
The many allusions to flower markets, individual blooms and florist stores, as well as the bouquets Victoria creates, were a natural link to my relationship with my friend, who a few years ago decided to purchase a floristry business, stepping out boldly and managing the store by herself while her husband and children remained at the farm. The friendship she and I had spanned the length of our children's childhoods, having met in a mother's group when our oldest were babies. Life throws up many challenges, not least my own experience of depression and having to raise three children with little family support and attempting to develop some kind of a career at same time (one of the side-effects of having children at a very young age, as Victoria found in the novel).  Eventually my marriage was cracking at the seams but I didn't have the strength to do something about it until just a couple of years ago. At the time, I felt disinclined to share too much with my flower loving friend, as her own separation from her family (a weekly occurence) appeared to be taking a heavy toll, and my divorce (perhaps seeming to come out of the blue) seemed to put our friendship on hold for some time.

In the novel, Victoria's sense of isolation from the rest of the world and her feelings of foreboding as she entered any relationship created massive emotional trellises for her to climb. For me the strongest narratives related to her experience of childbirth and those all-engulfing hours alone with her newborn daughter, where despite well-meaning intentions she found herself abandoned. Mother Ruby, the life-wizened mid-wife, could well have known better than to assume everything was going okay for Victoria and her dreadful, heart rendering isolation (so damaging for the baby and to Victoria) made me so angry I had to put the book down and have a break on many occasions. Quality writing does this to you, draws you so deeply into the text you can't detach it from your own experiences, being given the gift of sharing parts of your own life with those of the novel's characters.

The use of flower language or symbolism throughout the novel was captivating and original, however I did feel that it became a bit tiresome towards the second half and I occasionally found myself skipping some passages through flower overload. However, overall the novel was an amazing read; one of those special books I would like to keep to share with those who I know would enjoy it. Highly recommended!

Sue Oaks, Copyright 2012.