Flames, a first novel by the Tasmanian Robbie Arnott, begins with a protagonist, Levi McAllister, observing his mother returning from death, her waist trailing a “peacock tail of vegetation” and her head adorned with “cascading fronds of lawn-coloured maidenhair”. Such reincarnations are common among McAllister women who have been cremated and who, as the narrative comically describes, “all had their own reasons for returning – unfinished business, old grudges, forgotten chores”. Determined to prevent his sister Charlotte from returning when she dies, Levi undertakes the construction of a casket for her, even though she is still young and healthy. Charlotte flees, triggering a surprising story with a definite feminist edge.
Flames is anchored in the genre of magical realism, recalling other first novels set in Tasmania, such as Richard Flanagan’s Death of a River Guide and Tom Gilling’s The Sooterkin. However, Flames plays with other genres, too. When Levi hires a private detective to find Charlotte, we’re treated to a chapter parodying Raymond Chandler’s detective Philip Marlowe. Arnott’s detective is a hard-drinking woman with a gift for one-liners and a habit of identifying men in terms of their physical characteristics. Instead of “Silver-Wig” in The Big Sleep, for instance, there is “Moustache”. Another chapter, which presents a psychopathic wombat killer whose crimes are witnessed by cormorants, plays with the Tasmanian Gothic and Hitchcock’s The Birds. Charlotte’s pyrokinetic abilities, inherited from her father, recall Stephen King’s Firestarter.
The novel also experiments with different narrative forms. One chapter presents Levi’s correspondence with an expert coffin-maker, whom Levi approaches to build Charlotte’s casket. The coffin-maker is an arrogant fool, but his grudging responses to Levi’s letters – which address him as “Mr Idiot” and “Mr Faecal Brain” – also highlight the arrogance and foolishness of Levi’s quest.
Then there are various non-human narrators. After Charlotte shares a shelter with a water rat, a chapter is offered from the perspective of the creature, which views itself as a river god. Later, fire is personified in a brilliant example of the power of defamiliarisation, providing a unique perspective on human matters, including colonialism. The finale isn’t entirely satisfying, dramatically or semantically, but the novel’s playfulness and poetry make for a fresh and entertaining read. KN
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 19, 2018 as "Robbie Arnott, Flames ". Subscribe here.