Book Review: Flames by Robbie Arnott

Evocative. Intriguing. Compelling.

Flames is a wonderful novel, and Arnott is a terrific new young voice in Australian fiction.

In this assured debut, Arnott immerses the reader in the Tasmanian landscape, in weird and often uncanny ways. At a superficial level, we follow the story of twenty-three-year-old Charlotte McAllister. Charlotte’s mother has just died and returned (briefly) from the dead, her father is absent, and her brother wants to build her a coffin. In her grief, Charlotte flees southwards to an isolated, and improbable, wombat farm where she discovers more about herself than she ever thought possible.

It’s less about magical realism and more about an already haunting terrain taken one or two steps further. Hunting with seals, river and cloud gods, a private detective, true love, evil cormorants and the bonds of family. In precis the plot sounds ridiculous – and perhaps it is – but in fact the reader is in safe hands.

Arnott weaves a complex narrative with deceptive ease, bringing the strands together at the end in a satisfying climax.  The mystical elements are elegantly drawn, and full of emotional depth. The human characterisations are nuanced and believable. And, in a very subtle Australian way, the book is occasionally laugh-out-loud funny.

Flames has been accused (in The Australian) of stepping towards cultural appropriation. White and middle-class me is not in a position to judge, but I thought not. Arnott’s mythical characters are creatures of his imagination, in the same way that hobbits didn’t exist until Tolkien invented them. There are Aboriginal figures in the novel, but their mythologies and beliefs are not discussed or drawn upon. If the central characters have an Aboriginal background, Arnott doesn’t say so. Instead he pulls his own mythology from the landscape, from what is now our shared landscape, and in doing so opens up a fascinating – and respectful – conversation about everyone’s connection with country.  That said, I would be very interested to learn the views of Aboriginal readers about this fascinating novel.

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2018-07-16T18:26:20+00:00 July 16th, 2018|Book Review|6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. Lisa Hill July 16, 2018 at 6:19 pm - Reply

    I liked it too. Appropriation? I didn’t think so either…

    • Michelle Scott Tucker July 16, 2018 at 6:25 pm - Reply

      I didn’t realise you’d reviewed it – have now updated the post accordingly. You say “it’s as if Arnott has invented a whole mythology that is all our very own.” I couldn’t agree more, and I think it’s part of the reason I liked it so much.

      • Lisa Hill July 16, 2018 at 6:52 pm - Reply

        Yes… and since then I’ve read a YA novella from a series called The Fethafoot Chronicles, written by an indigenous author who has also invented his own mythology (because he didn’t want to use sacred knowledge). When I interviewed him about this (https://anzlitlovers.com/2018/07/12/meet-an-aussie-author-john-wenitong/) he quoted David Unaipon: “Perhaps some day, Australian writers will use Aboriginal myths and weave literature from them, the same as other writers have done with the Roman, Greek, Norse, and Arthurian legends” and I think this is what Arnott has done too.

  2. wadholloway July 18, 2018 at 12:27 pm - Reply

    Interesting, disconcerting really, to get Political Correctness from the Australian. I enjoy new fiction and this one sounds something like Indigenous author, Ellen van Neerven’s Water story in Heat and Light, which I enjoyed. But still I’m wary … ‘uncanny’, ‘magic realism’.

    • Michelle Scott Tucker July 18, 2018 at 8:05 pm - Reply

      It’s well written, so worth a try I think.

  3. drsushma July 18, 2018 at 10:20 pm - Reply

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