Sunday, October 20, 2019

FLAMES, Tasmanian debut author Robbie Arnott's full-tilt dive into magical realism, is a must-read!


Text Publishing
$8.99 ebook platforms, $15.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: ‘A strange and joyous marvel.’ Richard Flanagan

A young man named Levi McAllister decides to build a coffin for his twenty-three-year-old sister, Charlotte—who promptly runs for her life. A water rat swims upriver in quest of the cloud god. A fisherman named Karl hunts for tuna in partnership with a seal. And a father takes form from fire.

The answers to these riddles are to be found in this tale of grief and love and the bonds of family, tracing a journey across the southern island that takes us full circle.

Flames sings out with joy and sadness. Utterly original in conception, spellbinding in its descriptions of nature and its celebration of the power of language, it announces the arrival of a thrilling new voice in contemporary fiction.

Robbie Arnott was born in Launceston in 1989. His writing has appeared in Island, the Lifted Brow, Kill Your Darlings and the 2017 anthology Seven Stories. He won the 2015 Tasmanian Young Writers’ Fellowship and the 2014 Scribe Nonfiction Prize for Young Writers. Robbie lives in Hobart and is an advertising copywriter.

My Review: I'm sure anyone reading my reviews knows of The Guardian's marvelous ten-year-old "Not-the-Booker" crowd-sourced literary prize. I learned of Flames's existence from the ginormous user-generated longlist for this year's jousting match. It looked intriguing, but the contest review sold me, being by Guardian reading-group, literary-link curator Sam Jordison...who also happens to be the co-director of Galley Beggar Press, the 2019 Booker Prize-unwinner Ducks, Newburyport's original publisher. So he's got strong literary chi. I trusted him; I took a leap of faith; I was amply rewarded.

This lovely debut novel from a small-yet-mighty Australian publishing house was a delight to me from the moment I met Karl and his seal. Karl fishes off the northern coast of Tasmania, that deep-southern island state of Australia, the last significant spot of land between Antarctica and the world. His seal, like Lyra's daemon in His Dark Materials, is connected to Karl's very essence and forms a large part of Karl's self—both image and awareness. Their "Oneblood tuna" prey, the giant and preternaturally perfect piscine predators found only in the Bass Strait (this is never stated but is implicit in the constant Japanese tuna-buyers' presence), bring in huge amounts of money from sushi-mad Japanese consumers through their local Tasmanian agents. Karl supports his family, his seal included, on the proceeds of their hunts. His bond with his seal is, however, the source of his undoing. His seal, being but a seal, is not immortal and falls to a hungry orca before Karl's appalled and helpless eyes and ears:
Karl tried to forget that clicking sound. But it was lodged in a hole between his ears, a backdrop to his days that he feared and hated but could not escape. He was reminded of it constantly: when a light switch was flicked, when Louise clicked her fingers, when his leaping daughters clicked their heels, when Sharon at the fish-and-chip shop clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth as she waited for the oil in the deep fryer to heat up.
There is no magical cure here. Not even for the cruel soulkiller PTSD.

Already, in the first twenty-five pages of the book, the magic of Tasmania's lands and waters bears the reader's weight. "How does a fisherman become the partner of his competitor the seal?" wonders the Western materialist tapping the touchscreen to deliver the next jolt of story-junk to his addict's brain. In these first pages, we're tossed into a magical world where dying mothers (if they're McAllisters) are cremated, return to life as themselves melded with ferny forest glens before recombusting, which thereafter somehow gives the grieving son the clarity to think, "Everyone dies, even when they’re reincarnated;" where the son, who is also a brother, encounters the maimed soul of Karl for a prelude to one of the novel's truly bizarre, and bizarrely perfect, themes, death as an almost-silent character in the weird, winding path the Tasmanian humans tread:
Levi. And then, as if his surname was an afterthought: McAllister. He...ran his hand through his hair. Everything’s fine.
The name bumped around between Karl’s ears where the clicks usually lived. I’m sorry.
(Be aware that this story is dialogue-light, and such dialogue as there is is italicized as well as unattributed; this could present a problem for some traditionally inclined readers.) This is a crucial moment, but how is the reader to know it? Trusting the newb of an author to put this scene, with its awkward Manly Emotions Inadequately Expressed, in this precise place at this exact juncture is a big ask. I sat a moment after reading this, aware that the expression of sympathy in "I'm sorry" wasn't connected to anything in Levi's head, and the idea of a McAllister wasn't connected to anything in Karl's head (yet); and yet this is a deep and important scene in the book, said my spidey senses. What, why, how?

I love that. Author Arnott didn't tell me! No rookie mistake of hand-holding me through the significance of Levi's peculiar purpose...gathering driftwood for a coffin, a wooden receptacle for much of the meaning in this book...and Karl's peculiar and solitary presence on this beach at this moment. I am left with the deeply experienced reader's tingle in the presence of Momentousness; I am left with a king-sized curiosity bump itching like mad; but I am left and the story moves on.

Levi wants something. (More than the proverbial glass of water, for sure.) He can't really be anything other than an authorial self-portrait because no one else would receive an assessment as cruel as, "Tweaky voice, even though his words were smooth. Like his private-school manners were paved over something that had cracked," unless it was a self-assessment. He wants to control a world he can not comprehend. Levi wants to make the world behave, be orderly, not abandon him as he feels his father did, as he now feels his recombusted mother did; as his sister, whose death will result in her resurrection and recombustion because she's a McAllister woman, has when she discovered Levi was making her a coffin. He loves them all; they all leave him; where's the love in that?
Levi is reminding himself of his resolve: to show Charlotte that she wasn’t condemned to rise again, changed and ghastly, after she died. That her life needn’t end twice. That she needn’t suffer the same fate as their mother. That he had sourced this calming coffin for her and her alone; that in the face of their sorrow he had gone to great lengths to have it built; that he couldn’t go another day knowing she was in such pain; that he cared for her this much; that he loved her more than he could ever show with words; that the coffin represented all this.
Levi is not well. Levi is not realising: he could have just spoken to her. In a mind like his, grand acts will always trump honest words.
Levi is, I fear, the very saddest and least likely to be redeemed of the people in the story. Or so we're led carefully to believe.

Now meet Allen, the wombat tenant-farmer, decades among the wombats protecting and caring for them, that they might be turned into pelts. (This somewhat odd-to-non-Tasmanians idea is more suggested than explained.) Allen is a true lover of the deepest South this southernmost tip of Australia has to offer. His helpless adoration for the land is the occasion of some truly lush description:
I cannot bear the thought of being taken away from the farm.... If the wombats are my family, then this place is my home. Its undulating moorlands of peat and buttongrass; the glints of white quartzite that blink on the mountain caps; the cold, clean welcome of its unbroken sky; the harsh cliffs and tea-coloured waters; the gathering sense of wild solitude that breathes out of every crack in the land. I cannot go back to the flat brown farms of the Midlands, or the over lush dairy pastures of the northwest.
The source of his reverie is anxiety, however, a deep and well-grounded fear that the farm owner will dispense with him when he finally builds up the nerve to describe to her the horrible fate that's begun to befall the wombats in his decades-long care. He's no longer caring for them alone, though.

Karl's daughter Nicola, training as a veterinarian, has come to the farm for work experience; she has established herself with Allen, a taciturn man, as trustworthy and useful. Now Charlotte McAllister arrives, aflutter with the fear of her brother the coffin-procuring weirdo following and finding her. The women are deeply affected by the mysterious wombat deaths, as one would expect. Allen is affected as well, though with time his need for the women's help and his desire to husband the wombats as a farmer is curdling, changing him into a fearsome figure and an angry old man:
Each morning I march off, gun in hand and knife in belt, as their eyes follow me filled with what looks more and more like fear. It is futile, feminine softness, and nothing more.
I watched {the wombats} lumber towards her, four-legged lumps of uselessness made flesh, and realised that I hated them, that I must always have hated them, that I had been lying to myself for all the long years I have been trapped in this barren southern hell.
Action is required; the women take it. Events swirl out of control, Allen transmogrifies into an avatar of rage and hatred unique to this one place in the world. His final acts of fury and aggression cause a shocking change to come over Charlotte: She finds in herself her mother's fierce power to burn. Only she finds it before she dies, and she finds it as a defensive weapon against old Allen.

This is the beginning of the most intense, most magical passage in the novel: The search of Charlotte for control over her power to burn. Nicola is the only person who can quench Charlotte's fire. She gentles the rage and softens the heat in her friend (not feeling it as unusual that she has this heat...maybe because of her own father Karl's seal-mate?), and takes Charlotte to a place where she cannot cause accidental damage to the world around her. She drives them to the Northern mountains, a beautiful snowy stony world where her father's Japanese tuna-buying friend has a stone-built home. Perfect! It's too cold for vacationing friends to want to be there; Australian snow-tourists aren't going to know where it is. Of course they have all the comforts...the flammable comforts...of home:
Nicola turned back to Charlotte, looking harder through the darkness, and saw a thin blue trail worming out of her ear. It had reached the cushion beside her head—a wispy, plasticky stream of it, rising up into the cabin. As Nicola scrambled towards Charlotte the smoking patch of cushion erupted into a small blue flame. With one hand she smacked it out, and with the other she rested a palm on Charlotte’s hot cheek.
Through her palm she again felt the pulse of flame from within Charlotte’s body. Again she felt it flicker out. She felt the burn in her stomach, hot and red, and knew she’d doused the fire. Again she didn’t want to let go.
Charlotte learns slowly to control the flames of her combustive power. Nicola continues to gentle her rage and bank her fires; they become (inevitably) lovers. And it is at this point that the novel shows how much it is a first novel, one by a man.

Women connected in intimacy must, of course, be sexually involved. If/then, right? No. Not that cut-and-dried, but that is where men go with it. To be fair, that's where men go with it among their own kind as well. I can think of few truly intimate friendships between men in male-authored stories. More often than not they are hidden rivalries or become sexual relationships. Still, it's not as though the issue is handled pruriently. We're not treated to much more than a kiss and some hand-holdings between the ladies.

Also not very deft is the handling of the female private detective whose presence in the narrative is to give us a reason to go on the road while she tries to find Charlotte. She's the device used to deal with an unwoven plot thread about another of Tasmania's many nature gods. A human causes the death of the animal-formed Esk God in his own river. That certainly can't go unanswered. The tough-as-nails prick-teasing ball-buster P.I. stereotype is launched to give these two strands a fast stitch. Her own story of having a strong physical sixth sense is shorted, as it must be unless the book is to be as long as the Bible. Suffice to say she serves her dual purpose, then goes quietly away. In fact, she was underused. Her role, larger and less broad-stroked, could've bridged the super- and the natural worlds. Missed opportunity, that.

It is also at this point in the narrative, the point where Charlotte and Nicola are together and dealing with the weirdness of Tasmania's hyperaware supernatural world, when we discover Charlotte's ancestral connection to fire. I won't spoil it. It's one of the lyrical joys of the book. At last we bring all the narrative strands together. Charlotte and Levi each learn how to speak their truths to each other; Nicola learns that her life's bonds are strong enough to bear the weight of multitudes; Levi, in a unexpected and amazing volte-face, learns his rudderless life's purpose. And it is Karl, at Nicola's behest, who weaves this into another strand between Charlotte's McAllister firey world and Nicola's seas and snows. It is exactly right.

The few issues above set aside, I'm left delighting in the sheer beauty of the language and the vigorous imagination that gave the magic of Tasmania a voice at last. This is what makes Flames a full five-star read. Earlier I mentioned the moment I knew when the threads of these disparate stories began to merge, that initial knowledge of Momentous Doings taking place. The full fruition of that sense came when the supernatural and natural worlds collided with all the force and all the passion of the stories told up to now; the resolution was revealed, the purpose of these journeys was enunciated:
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.
Sadness and sorrow powered the trip. The destination, left a bit in shadow, is as simple and as difficult as:
It had something to do with attraction...and kindness and care and devotion. A true kind of love was in itself a version of what he knew best: it was a purpose.

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