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Flames (Robbie Arnott, Text)

Flames opens with a moment of transformation: ‘Our mother returned to us two days after we spread her ashes over Notley Fern Gorge.’ This arresting first line sets the tone for the rest of Robbie Arnott’s beguiling debut, which explores the messy, overwhelming nature of grief with a magical twist. Siblings Levi and Charlotte McAllister come from a family where the women return after they’ve been cremated. After witnessing their mother’s second death, Levi decides to build a coffin so that his sister will never have to undergo the same change. Charlotte promptly runs for her life, journeying to the isolated outreaches of Tasmania to escape. Flames is an engrossing read told from multiple perspectives. Each new chapter is narrated by a different character and Arnott skilfully switches between different voices and genres in a trick reminiscent of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. The range he displays is impressive, swinging from fable to gothic horror to hardboiled detective story. If there’s one common link, it’s in the evocation of nature. Levi and Charlotte encounter a Tasmania that is filled with a rich and strange magic, a blend of fairytale and myth that’s suffused with beauty. Flames is not a book for fans of deep character studies or sharp dialogue, but will be savoured by readers of literary fiction looking to be immersed in the power of language.

Jackie Tang is the editor of Books+Publishing


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