Flames by Robbie Arnott

A cremated woman returns after her ashes are scattered in the bush. A water rat searches for the Cloud God. A wombat farmer who dreams of cormorants every night wakes to find his bed full of feathers.

To try to sum up everything that happens in this novel (and considering it’s a quick read of only 256 pages, there is a remarkable amount that does happen) is to miss the point of Robbie Arnott’s work. Flames is not so much the story of one person or even a group of people, but more so the story of a place, a version of Tasmania where the landscape has a voice, a history, an impact on the lives of its inhabitants. A Tasmania where humans live side by side with gods, and every aspect of nature has a touch of the unknowable about it, where wonders abound and there are mysteries that can never be explained. Flames borrows from a range of styles, including magical realism, as the magic that permeates it is sometimes taken as part and parcel of everyday life in this bizarre new universe, and sometimes regarded with the awe that would be awarded it in a fantasy novel.

While exploring the usual themes that pop up in Australian literature, such as grief, and obsession (think Richard Flanagan’s First Person), Arnott approaches the topic with a refreshingly new vision. Each chapter flicks to a different point of view, told with its own unique voice and genre, in a fashion reminiscent of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.

This is the kind of book that you’ll be able to read a second, third, even fourth time, and it will still never reveal all its secrets. Composed with meticulous attention to detail, and a mastery of form rarely found in a debut novel, Flames will keep you stewing long after you’ve finished reading it.

Tom Davies works as a bookseller at Readings Doncaster.

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Robbie Arnott

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