Flames is not an easy book to write about. It’s quite some way out of my usual literary territory, steeped as it is in fantasy and folklore, but I’m delighted that I overcame my prejudice and jumped in. Tasmanian writer Robbie Arnott’s debut begins with the reappearance of Edith McAllister, two days dead.
The McAllister women have a history of resurrection, appearing covered in barnacles or vegetation after they’ve been cremated, only to burst into flames a few days later. It comes as no surprise, then, when Edith repeats the pattern. Levi appears to take it all in his stride but Charlotte is distraught, howling and screeching with a grief so wrenching it leaves Levi at a loss. These two are very different yet they share a bond of love. Levi decides that the best he can do for Charlotte is to save her from the same fate as their mother, commissioning a coffin which will contain her when the time comes. When Charlotte sees his notes, she takes off to a remote area of Tasmania, once a mining site now a wombat farm tended by a farmer who loves his stock devotedly. Panicked by her disappearance, Levi sets a private detective on Charlotte’s trail. Meanwhile, Charlotte has found herself a job as a farm hand. By the time the detective has tracked her down, events have taken a very dark turn at the farm where a large and glossy cormorant appears to be wreaking havoc.
Arnott’s novel is one of the most striking I’ve read this year. Told from a variety of perspectives – from a water-rat king to a foul-mouthed coffin maker, a man-made of fire to another driven mad by it – it could very easily have had me tossing it aside after a few pages but it drew me in with its gorgeous writing. From its show-stopping opening paragraph, it’s stuffed full of vivid images of the natural – and unnatural – world, its fantastical story tempered with humour. Arnott knits the threads of his tale together satisfyingly, returning us at its end to one of my favourite sections when a man discovers the joy of finding his other half who is not what you might expect. I’m not going to strain to find a meaning to it all – that would destroy its delight – but it’s safe to say that love of more than one sort triumphs. My advice is just sit back and enjoy the ride