Flames by Robbie Arnott

Australian literature is the best. Over Christmas I’ve indulged in reading the literature for adults I can’t easily justify reading during the year (but read anyway) when I am focusing on YA and children’s lit for work – and also pleasure.

I’ve been reading a mix of Australian and international fiction. I have to say that the Oz books are better. Highlights have included Trent Dalton’s Boy Swallows Universe (HarperCollins Australia), Marcus Zusak’s Bridge of Clay (Picador, Pan Macmillan, reviewed here), Gail JonesThe Death of Noah Glass (Text Publishing) – the best literary fiction I read last year by probably my favourite writer for adults – and I have just finished Flames by Robbie Arnott.

Flames (Text Publishing) is an extraordinary debut novel. Set in Tasmania, shrouded in the gothic and macabre, it reminds me of one of my all-time favourite novels, The Sooterkin by Tom Gilling (Text Publishing). Both novels share a kinship with seals. 

The cover is an abstract, reimagined Tasmanian wonderland, designed by the talented and charming W. H. Chong from a lithograph by Harry Kelly. It evokes both place and the elements of each chapter: Ash, Salt, Sky, Snow and Wood … Flames smoulder and taunt or empower the characters.

The tale begins with the return of Edith McAllister two days after her ashes were spread over Notley Fern Gorge. “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.” She is one of several McAllister women to appear after cremation, causing her grieving son Levi to commission a coffin for the eventual death of his twenty-three-year-old sister Charlotte in the hope that this will alleviate fear of her own reappearance after death.

As well as Levi’s viewpoint, the author shares the perspective of Charlotte, who escapes to remote southern Melaleuca; Karl, who bonds with a seal to hunt the Oneblood tuna (and witnesses the most harrowing and unforgettable scene in the novel); and his daughter Nicola who loves Charlotte. Other characters include the coffin-maker (whose derangement is largely shown through his letters to Levi); the “Esk God” water rat; the farm manager who cares for the wombats; the gin-swilling female private investigator and the enigmatic Jack McAllister. The entwined lives of these characters are skilfully explored.

The setting will be familiar – and not – to those who know the Tasmanian landscape. Place is wrought superbly. Images are unique and expressionistic. Flames are volatile.

Flames has deservedly been shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards fiction prize, alongside The Death of Noah Glass. Australian literature is flourishing.

Review – Molly and Pim and the Millions of Stars

Molly and PimSometimes, it takes a little while for things to change from what they were to something different. Imagine a new seedling nudging its head up through the earth for the first time, no longer a seed, not yet a tree. This miraculous transformation of being represents the way I felt reading Martine Murray’s new mid-grade fiction, Molly and Pim and the Millions of Stars. It took a little while for me to see the light emerge within this tale but when it did, it shone. I mean, who doesn’t love climbing trees? Aren’t we all a little attracted to the enigmatic silent types? And who hasn’t wanted to give it to their overbearing neighbours once and a while? These are some of the conundrums that claim Molly’s consideration, too.

Molly is an ordinary girl living a strange existence. She shares her strange life with a border collie named, Maude, an indifferent feline known as, Claudine and her Mama, who’s penchant for potions and picking herbs makes Molly cringe. She wishes for a life more run-of-the mill like her best friend, Ellen’s. Ellen’s mum puts food in packets in Ellen’s lunchbox and never picks herbs barefooted before breakfast. Ellen lives in a normal suburban brick home that in no way resembles the gypsy caravan that is Molly’s abode, at least that’s how she perceives the house she lives in.

Molly and Pim Claude collie illoThen there’s, Pim, the slightly left of field boy at school, whose aloofness and indifference intrigues Molly to the point of distraction. Molly is a little frightened and yet, truth be told, oddly compelled by his abstract ways but is unable to decide if he is friend or foe.

There is no time to find out because Molly and her mama are preparing for battle against ‘the world’s nastiest neighbours’, the ghastly Grimshaws from next door. In an effort to restore harmony, Molly’s mama suggests they grow a tree, a magnificent towering oak tree that will block out the beastly Grimshaws with its beauty. How does one grow an oak tree overnight, though? With the help of mama’s magic potions of course. Shockingly mama’s potion has devastating outcomes. A tree appears but is it all that it appears?

Following the loss of her mama, Molly must not only fend and feed herself and her small menagerie, often with hilarious results, but she must also come to terms with her own jagged dance of life. Through the pain of separation, the vacuum of loneliness, and the desperation of time running out, Molly discovers the beauty in the way her stars align and lets unfurl an inner power she barely knew existed.

This story is a series of beautiful realisations and discoveries as Molly climbs ever higher through her tree of life. You feel her mama’s presence fiercely in every inch of this story, which is both heartbreaking and reassuring. As Molly’s resources and resolve are tested, she finds solace in what was always her normal. Bolstered by Pim’s alliance and Ellen’s unyielding friendship, Ellen learns how it feels being part of the millions of stars that make up the world, her world and what power can issue forth from such awareness. With realisation comes heart and from within heart, courage is forged; ‘imagine if you were never scared of falling, how much higher you might climb’.

Martine Murray Murray uses generous doses of whimsy and magic to tell Molly’s tale of self-discovery and acceptance. The results are spellbinding. Weird but very wonderful, Molly and Pim and the Millions of Stars will sweep young readers away. The line-drawn illustrations and inclusion of Molly’s notebook on herbs are the end are fetching additions to a book that grows with you and allows you to reflect on its fantasticalness long after the last page is turned. Molly certainly lit up my world.

Molly and Pim and the Millions of Stars can be found in Boomerang’s exciting Kids’ Reading Guide 2015-2016.

The Text Publishing Company June 2015