By Robbie ArnottFictionText Publishing

Flames

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.

Portrait of Robbie Arnott

Robbie Arnott

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

Judges’ report

A man and a seal tame each other so they can become hunting buddies. A cremated woman comes back to life as a fern and takes up residence on her ex-husband's lawn. A coffin-maker sends nasty letters to a man enquiring about a coffin for his young and healthy sister.  

Robbie Arnott's Flames is an imaginative and audacious debut novel, bursting with creatures and characters at once new and mythological. Taking the dramatic landscapes of Tasmania as his backdrop, Arnott uses shades of magic realism to explore the all too real theme of grief – the journeys we go on to make sense of the loss of a loved one, and the ways in which we find our way back to living.   

Arnott experiments with voice, character and perspective, as well as form and genre, to craft a powerful debut novel that will ensure its readers never think about Tasmania – or, indeed, fiction – quite the same way again. 

Extract

Ash

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.

This kind of thing wasn’t uncommon in our family.

Our grandmother had reappeared a few days after her ashes were scattered into the north-facing strait at Hawley Beach. She’d been sporting a skirt of cowrie shells, a fish hook in her tongue, skin of shifting sand, strands of kelp for hair and a large greenlip abalone suckered onto the back of her neck as she approached a group of terrified fishermen, her wrinkled arms outstretched and the sound of crashing waves swirling out of her salt-rimmed mouth. Our great-aunt Margaret had also returned, not long after her ashes had been poured over the family farm down at Bothwell. When she’d wandered back into her living room she immediately started shedding sheets of paperbark all over the carpet, while an ornate crown of bluegum branches burst from her head and the furred tail of a Bennett’s wallaby flopped out from beneath her dress. And our cousin Ella had been spotted a week after her ashes were given to the high scraping winds of Stacks Bluff. With a speckled body of dolerite and an iced face of hard sky she strode into her former school and marched slowly through the grounds, leaving a trail of snapped frost behind each fallen step.

There were others, too—aunts and cousins and ances- tors fused with leaf and lichen, root and rock, feather and fur. It had been happening for generations, ever since our ancestors had come to the island, or maybe even longer; nobody seemed to know. The only sure thing was the ratio: around a third of the McAllister women returned to the family after they’d been cremated. The men never did.

They all had their own reasons for returning—unfinished business, old grudges, forgotten chores. Once they’d done what they came back for they trudged back to the landscape that had re-spawned them, and we never saw them again.

Our mother came back for four days. My sister, Charlotte, and I guessed that it had something to do with our father, who hadn’t spoken to any of us in years, but our mother didn’t give anything away. On the first day she showered for six hours. Like real ferns, her leafy appendages required a lot of moisture. On the second day she limited herself to a two-hour shower and wandered around the house, trailing her delicate fronds across family photos and heirlooms, ignoring Charlotte and me as we tried to talk to her. On the third she stopped showering altogether. And 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.

*

While this event upset us—and I guess our father as well, although I can’t be certain—I quickly got over it. Everyone dies, even when they’re reincarnated. But Charlotte struggled to move on. The black patch of burnt grass in our father’s lawn glued itself into her mind. I began to find her staring at the forest, touching plants, sniffing rocks, licking trees. Currawong calls would draw her down into the gullies that carved through our property. Whale spray, rising from the nearby ocean, threw her into fits of uncontrolled screaming. I wondered what form she would take when she returned to me, which brought thoughts of our mother, burning to ash for the second time.

These thoughts proved endless, and worrying, and terrible, and the more Charlotte struggled the more I worried; so I did what I thought was right. I started looking for a coffin, and I swore to bury her whole and still and cold.

The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist