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Writing and design by Melissa Hill, graphic designer.

Flames by Robbie Arnott

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A cloud’s sorrow: you cannot imagine it. But you can feel it, whenever a storm hits the world with uncommon force. When mountains crack and forests flood. When rivers surge and oceans bloat. When there is no true shelter left in the world. For the hardest storms are made of sorrow.
— Robbie Arnott, "Flames"

I’ve started to form a habit lately when reading. Whenever I read, there are always turns of phrase or lovely descriptions, or profound thoughts that stand out to me. So often in the past I’ve made the mistake of not noting them down immediately. Even those that strike some chord deep inside are always stubbornly difficult to find when flicking back through the book post-read. I adore my books as beautiful objects as well as for their content, so I don’t feel comfortable about marking them and also, I don’t tend to travel about with sticky notes or other scraps of paper… I’m always finding these passages when I’m reading on the train. So I’ve starting snapping photos with my phone and cataloging them in Evernote. It’s proving to be quite a good system.

It doesn’t always work though. The flaw? Well, it’s me. Sometimes I just get so caught up in a book that I completely forget to take note of anything. Flames, by Robbie Arnott was one of these reads for me. Absorbing, strange, curious… it’s an odd book, filled with energy and magic and so unlike anything that I’ve ever read before that I had no idea where it was going. If I had to compare it to anything, I would say that it elicited similar feelings from me as Cloudstreet or Gould’s Book of Fish.

I knew nothing about this book before I started reading it. My husband had just finished it himself and I dare say he was drawn to it because of its stunning cover design. W.H. Chong has created a beautiful composition, using the Harry Kelly’s poster design, “Tasmania, the Wonderland” as a base for a riot of colour and shape. The torn paper effects create rough edges and organic shapes that work well with the wildness of the story within, without literally referencing fire.

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“The sky kept thinking about rain without ever making a commitment to it.”

Set in Tasmania, Flames is the story of the McAllister family, placed against a wondrous backdrop of nature. It starts off odd and just gets odder from there, but I can’t say too much about the plot without giving too much away. What I will say is that Flames examines the tensions in the relationships within this family, with Arnott weaving fantastical elements seamlessly into a story of real loves, fears, betrayals and misunderstandings. I won’t pretend to understand whether he had some deeper meaning to writing a book of this nature, whether the magical elements are metaphors for important ideas… I think sometimes we can get too caught up in “what does this mean?” instead of just letting the experience of the work speak to us on a deeper level.

“A memory, sharp as snapped glass: her father coming home on a summer evening. The folds in his face were linked with salt, cooked to a dense crust by the sun through a long day on the water, and his legs were stumping slowly up the driveway – stiff and heavy, knackered. Yet when he looked up to see her waiting behind the rails of their deck his stride lengthened, his knees lifted higher and the salt crust on his face was cracked open by a spreading, full-toothed smile…And even though there was never much else – no hugs, no deep talks, no dancing together at a cousin’s wedding – it didn’t matter, because it was always enough: the smile that cracked the salt.”

Anyway, isn’t nature always a bit magical? Especially somewhere like the forests of Tasmania, so remote and unpeopled – who is to say that there isn’t a Cloud God or an Esk God or evil cormorants or sentient fire? Arnott has taken his setting, which he obviously knows very well, and imbued it with myth and magic. When I was a child, Enid Blyton had me half-believing that I would find pixies down the back of the garden, or that trees with unusually large girths might reach up into other lands. Arnott does this for the Tasmanian wilderness, but in a more sophisticated way. He makes the setting and the emotions of his characters larger than life, too large, too intense to be contained in the normal way. Hence, flames.

“He was born in the instant a woman, crouching by the curl of a cold river, smacked two smooth stones together. From that crash of rock flew a spark, and in that spark there was heat, light…and him. Somewhere inside that tiny flick of fire he began to exist, first as a hot thought, then as a porto-mind. There were no words or emotions; there was just life. His life. All he knew was that he existed, that he burned and that he was falling.”

Don’t we all feel like we could burst into flames sometimes?