Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 21, 2018

Flames, by Robbie Arnott

A book from Tassie called Flames has to be about bushfires, right?  Well, not quite.  This strange and beautiful book begins with the tale of the McAllister women, who reincarnate after death to deal with unfinished business, old grudges, forgotten chores.  And they do it with flame…

Levi McAllister sees the transformation:

Our mother returned to us two days after we spread her ashes over Notley Fern Gorge.  She was definitely our mother – but at the same time, she was not our mother at all.  Since her dispersal among the fronds of Notley, she had changed.  Now her skin was carpeted by spongy, verdant moss and thin tendrils of common filmy fern.  Six large fronds of tree fern had sprouted from her back and extended past her waist in a layered peacock tail of vegetation.  And her hair had been replaced by cascading fronds of lawn-coloured maidenhair – perhaps the most delicate fern of all.  (p.1)

She stays for four days, but on the third day ceases showering to keep the foliage moist:

… on the fourth she walked out the front door, smiled at the winter sun and hiked for a full day to our father’s house, where she waited on his lawn for him to find her.

By the time he did she’d been without water for two days.  Her foliage was brown, cracked and dust-dry.  As our father walked towards her, she began vigorously rubbing two of her large tree-fern fronds together.  When he was within speaking distance a thin curl of smoke began rising from her back.  And when he reached out to touch her mossy face a crackled lick of fire spread up, over and through her.  He recoiled, falling backwards as her body swarmed with flames and she burned, fast and bright and loud, blood-orange in the night. (p.3)

Intrigued?  I certainly was…

What follows is a series of what seems initially like disconnected short stories which vary in weirdness from a fisherman who works in tandem with a seal pup to catch Oneblood tuna fish, to a psychotic farmer of wombats, to a gin-swigging tough-dame detective, to a water-rat who’s god of the Esk River, but these elements are all linked to form an extraordinary tale.  Once you surrender to the world of the novel, it has a compelling narrative arc as Charlotte McAllister flees her brother who is building a coffin for her, in order (he thinks) for her to escape her fate in flames.  The Tasmanian landscape is magnificently evoked – which is interesting because in an interview (see below for the link) Arnott says he doesn’t mention Tasmania once, and it’s true, I didn’t recognise any of the place names except for the Esk River and I know Tassie reasonably well.  The quirkiness of the characters – a staple of novels set in small town Australia – allows for good-natured humour as well as biting satire, but it’s the mythic qualities of this novel that make it special… it’s as if Arnott has invented a whole mythology that is all our very own.

You can hear an illuminating interview with the author here.

If you like the fiction of Jane Rawson, I think you will like this one too.

Author: Robbie Arnott
Title: Flames
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2018
ISBN: 9781925603521
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Flames



  1. A book from Tassie called ‘Flames’. Well that intrigued me. And then! And then, the excerpts you’ve given us . . . I am more than intrigued now. It sounds fascinating indeed.


    • LOL I did think of Flame Tip straight away and I know it influenced my reading of this book:)


  2. This one sounds like a ripper.


  3. That’s a great test isn’t it, to be able to evoke a place without naming it.


    • Indeed. I went to a workshop run by Mairi Neil this week where we focussed on using images from the senses. It’s hard to do. I discovered when I was trying to convey the smell of an empty house full of old furniture, that I just don’t have the vocab to describe the smell of things.


      • I find Mairi’s posts very good at ‘evoking’ – with their mix of prose, images and poetry.


        • She’s amazing, isn’t she? Her photography is great too.


  4. […] Lisa at ANZLitLovers enjoyed it too. […]


  5. […] by Robbie Arnott, see my review […]


  6. […] Flames (Text Publishing) by Robbie Arnott, see my review […]


  7. […] by Robbie Arnott, see my review […]


  8. […] Flames by Robbie Arnott (Text Publishing), see my review Ironbark by Jay Carmichael (Scribe Publications) The Fireflies of Autumn: And Other Tales of San […]


  9. […] Flames by Robbie Arnott (Text Publishing), see my review Ironbark by Jay Carmichael (Scribe Publications) The Fireflies of Autumn: And Other Tales of San […]


  10. […] Another book with the same word in its title is Flames by debut Tassie author Robbie Arnott.  Recently shortlisted in the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, this cunning novel invites a whole new mythology that builds on the idea of vengeful reincarnations who use flame to deal with unfinished business, old grudges, forgotten chores.  See my review here. […]


  11. […] by Robbie Arnott, see my review Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton, see Sue’s review at Whispering Gums Scrublands by […]


  12. […] there I could also repeat last month’s #6Degrees with Flames by Robbie Arnott because it’s just been shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards but instead […]


  13. […] Flames, Robbie Arnott (Text), see my review […]


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: