When it comes to the canon of literature, Australian writers do not get nearly enough credit. This review is my effort to change that. For Tasmanian author Robbie Arnott’s Flames is an ambitious and powerful example of magical realism, in which the author explores the nature of grief and family bonds in ways they have never been explored before. Do you want the best news? This is Arnott’s debut novel. Luckily, one that has earned him a permanent place on the literary scene.
‘Our mother returned to us two days after we spread her ashes over Notley Fern Gorge. She was definitely our mother – but, at the same time, she was not our mother at all.’
Flames has been long and shortlisted for a number of Australian awards, including the 2018 University of Queensland Fiction Book Award. Admittedly, awards aren’t everything, and they shouldn’t determine the value of a book. However, it’s my sincere hope that Arnott’s writing gains recognition outside of his home country as well. For Flames isn’t just a worthy Australian book. It’s a worthy book for any writer of any nationality.
‘I wasn’t always like this. You might find it hard to believe, but I used to be normal… Gin sneaks into your coffee, first in drops, then in waves.’
From the first chapter of Flames, it becomes clear that Arnott finds inspiration in nature (if you exclude the title, that is). The Tasmanian landscape worms its way into almost every page of the story. We get descriptions like ‘mossy face’ and ‘thin curl of smoke began rising from her back.’ This is one of many reasons the novel feels topical. In an age where (thankfully) talks about protecting the planet are frequent, Arnott reminds us that humans are inextricably connected to our natural environment, in more ways than we would like to admit.
‘He was born in the instant a woman, crouching by the curl of a cold river, smacked two smooth stones together. From that crash of rock flew a spark, and in that spark there was heart, light… and him.’
If you’re looking to pick up an easy read with a chronological narrative, I recommend you look elsewhere. Flames is anything but linear. In fact, it feels like being anti-linear is precisely Arnott’s point. As readers, we follow multiple characters and are dropped into settings without any prior warning. If you aren’t prepared, it can be difficult to follow along.
‘It takes the fire changing colour for me to realise it: we aren’t leaving here. Our ash will join our mother’s.’
So, prepare yourself. This is a story to which you won’t regret committing. Trust me, and trust Robbie Arnott. His twists and turns are not without reason. Flames is ambitious, daring, strange, complex, mythical, original, compassionate, and a real read to remember. If this is the quality of Arnott’s debut, I can’t wait to see what he comes out with next.
Flames is published by Atlantic Books and is available here.
Robbie Arnott was born in Launceston in 1989. His writing has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies. He won the 2015 Tasmanian Young Writers’ Fellowship and the 2014 Scribe Non-fiction Prize for Young Writers. He lives in Hobart.
Reviewed by Alice Kouzmenko
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