VCE Study Guide: Flames

This is an abbreviated version of my Neap Smartstudy guide to Robbie Arnott’s Flames, new to the VCE English text list.

You can find a copy of the full study guide here or here (these are not affiliate links).

Flames by Robbie Arnott: Neap Smartstudy English Text Guide

Overview

Flames is a darkly humorous novel that blends elements of mythology and the Gothic with vivid descriptions of the Australian landscape. Told from the point of view of multiple characters, Robbie Arnott’s novel spans the island of Tasmania and shows the connections between humanity and nature. From an angry river god in the form of a water rat, to an evil cormorant spirit, to a family descended from a fire god, Arnott uses his mythical creations to offer a commentary on climate change, natural disasters, and the treatment of the First Nations peoples of Tasmania.

Context

Arnott highlights the sometimes-harsh landscape of the island he grew up on, writing in a genre sometimes referred to as ‘Tasmanian Gothic’. The dark themes of murder, revenge, and betrayal and the use of the supernatural echo Gothic texts of the 1800s, but with a distinctly Australian character.

Characters are drawn from experience, including the real-life inspiration for Allen Gibson, the manager of the wombat farm, who reflects many characteristics of bushman and tin miner Deny King. Situations in the text are also based partially on reality, such as the 2013 Tasmanian bushfires and the 2016 Launceston floods. Blending reality and the supernatural in this way allows Arnott to heighten the strange and unsettling mythology of his version of Tasmania.

Summary (spoilers!)

Levi and Charlotte McAllister are visited by their recently deceased mother, who returns to them covered in ferns. She stays with them for a short while in total silence before inexplicably bursting into flames on their father’s lawn. Levi, concerned that his sister will share his mother’s fate, decides to build a coffin for Charlotte so that she will be spared a cremation after her death. When Charlotte – in perfectly good health and not planning on dying any time soon – learns of Levi’s plans, she flees.

Charlotte journeys across Tasmania, eventually finding herself on a remote wombat farm at Melaleuca. Meanwhile, Levi pursues his coffin building plan, enlisting the help of the renowned coffin maker and local eccentric Thurston Hough. Hough agrees – eventually, for money – to help Levi. However, the coffin maker is haunted by the animals of the waterways after he murders a rakali which also happens to be the God of the river Esk. Hough, increasingly detached from reality, leaves Levi to finish the coffin for himself.

A detective hired by Levi tracks Charlotte across the island. At Melaleuca the diary entries of the farm manager Allen Gibson reveal an increasingly dark tale of supernatural powers, culminating in Gibson’s possession by a vicious cormorant spirit and Charlotte’s discovery of her fiery powers. Nicola, the farm hand who has fallen in love with Charlotte, flees with the McAllister sister to a remote cabin on Cradle Mountain.

Eventually, we learn the story of the McAllister’s fire-spirit father and the source of Charlotte’s powers. Charlotte, the detective, and Levi’s stories merge in a climactic scene in which Levi – possessed by the spirit of the river god – is manically cutting down a tree to finish his sister’s coffin. Charlotte unleashes her powers against his and starts a savage bushfire, and the grieving cloud god – former lover of the river god – conjures a violent storm which washes over the island.

Ideas and values

Humanity and Nature

In Flames, humans live side-by-side with gods of the natural world, but the relationship is complicated. Many of the characters have an affinity with nature and feel more comfortable on the coast, in the forest, or in the mountains than in the cities. But the gods have been degraded and stripped of their power by human progress.

The McAllister family in particular has a close relationship with both the creative and destructive sides of nature. Edith is one of many women in her family who returns from the dead covered in the natural elements of the place her ashes were scattered. But Charlotte’s power, inherited from Jack, has the capacity for great destruction.

Characters like Karl and the Ranger also have a strong bond with the natural world, including Karl’s relationship with his seal and the Ranger’s childhood growing up in nature. In Flames many of the inhabitants of the island rely on nature, even if sometimes humanity fights against it.

Attitudes Towards Death

There is a morbid undercurrent that runs throughout the novel, often in contrast with the humorous characters and situations. Levi and Charlotte both react to their mother’s death and strange resurrection, and the narrative of the coffin Levi intends to build represents both Levi’s grief and his – misguided – devotion to his sister.

Thurston Hough’s knowledge of Australian woods is infused with supernatural ideas about death, with each coffin wood impacting differently on the body within and the environment surrounding it. Hough’s attitude towards death is disturbingly businesslike, and even when Levi informs him that his sister is not actually dead, the coffin maker continues to focus on the qualities of the wood rather than asking questions about why Levi would need a coffin for someone still alive.

Family and Relationships

At the centre of the many different narratives in Flames is the story of the McAllister family, their strange inheritance of the power of reincarnation, and the mystery surrounding Jack. Despite their mysterious and supernatural powers, the McAllister family also fights and argues like any normal family.

The tension between Levi and Charlotte stems from the different ways they react to their mother’s death. Charlotte escapes across the island after Levi’s misguided attempt to help her by measuring her for a coffin, but eventually circumstances force the siblings back together. Along the way more about Jack’s character is revealed, and the family grows even stranger, but both Charlotte and Levi have obviously inherited traits from both sides of their family.

Karl and Nicola have a much stronger relationship than the McAllisters, and their family is built on stronger foundations – Jack tricks Edith into marrying him, whereas Karl and Louise marry for love.

Myths and the Supernatural

The stories of gods and myths are woven throughout Arnott’s text: the Esk God even gets an entire chapter, and the Cloud God takes centre stage at the climax of the story. Arnott uses the gods to raise questions about the impact of humanity and particularly industrialisation on the natural environment of the island.

The Esk God comments on the taste of iron in the waterways and the slow decline of the other gods, including the Frost God, Shale God, Gum God, Bark God, and the Hunt God, represented by the Tasmanian Tiger. The Esk God’s rage towards humans is clear, and his spirit after death possesses both Thurston Hough and Levi and drives them to madness.

Jack has a complex relationship with humans. Though not identified as a god, he is clearly an ancient spirit who has been close with humans since his creation. Jack fathers human children with Edith, and the Esk God also notices that some humans share the traits of the gods and spirits, some growing horns or crying tree sap. Allen Gibson, the farm manager at Melaleuca, becomes obsessed with hunting the cormorant that is killing his wombats and it is ultimately revealed that he too is possessed by an evil spirit.

Characters

Levi McAllister

Levi is stubborn and serious, fiercely protective of his sister but ultimately misguided. As his sense of responsibility towards Charlotte drives him to building her a coffin, he fails to notice that his actions are pushing her away. Ultimately, Levi becomes possessed by the spirit of the Esk God, driving him further into mania.

Levi finally acknowledges that his actions were irrational since the death of his mother, and accepts Nicola’s offer to head out on the sea with Karl.

Charlotte McAllister

Charlotte is a strong and independent character who does not hesitate to set out on her own across the island when she begins to fear her brother’s actions. She has strange dreams and a listlessness which hint towards her powers. Her altercation with a pair of miners en route to Melaleuca reveals some of what is to come, but it is not until the wombat farm that the true strength of her inheritance is revealed.

Charlotte falls in love with Nicola, who helps her to try to control her powers. She has a strong affinity with nature and straddles the worlds of the fern-choked gorge of her mother, the sea coast, and her father’s fire-god fury.

Jack McAllister

Jack is a mysterious and threatening character from the outset. His children are estranged, and his reincarnated wife’s incineration on his lawn indicates a long-standing animosity between them. When the detective finally encounters him, she is left only with a vague, hazy recollection of his average features.

Jack is a fire spirit. His exact nature is never revealed, but there is a detailed story of his journey from “birth” at the hands of a woman striking a flame early in the island’s history. The story recounts his various incarnations, sometimes returning from natural causes and other times conjured by humans. He is rash, impulsive, and his relationship with the humans that created him is fraught.

Nicola

Nicola’s measured, calm demeanour offers the perfect counterbalance to Charlotte’s fiery temperament. She is the daughter of Karl, who hunts with his seal for the mythical Oneblood tuna. Like Charlotte, Nicola has an affinity with nature, possibly inherited from her seagoing father.

Nicola attempts to help Charlotte to control her powers but when Levi knocks Nicola unconscious in the climactic scene, Charlotte’s rage unleashes the bushfire that threatens to kill them all.

The Detective

The detective is a cynical, mysterious character who reflects the antiheroes of the ‘hard boiled’ or ‘pulp’ crime genre. She begins each day with a crushing hangover as a result of her alcoholism, but her drive and determination allows her to track Charlotte across the island.

The Gods and Spirits

There are numerous gods and spirits in Flames, some drawn from myth and religion, and some from Arnott’s imagination. The Esk God first appears in the form of a rakali – a native water rat – displeased with humanity encroaching on its waterways. The Esk God also reflects on other gods, most stripped of their power by humans and the advance of industry on the island.

The Esk God’s lover, the Cloud God, threatens to drown the entire island with her grief from atop Ben Lomond. Jack, the fire god, explores his tense relationship with humanity and his own family.   

Thurston Hough

Hough is a renowned coffin maker and an expert on natural Australian timbers and their almost magical properties. He is also an old crank, angry at the tax office and his neighbours, and increasingly isolated once driven mad by the spirit of the Esk God.

The Ranger

The Ranger, like many characters in Flames, has a close relationship with nature. Like the detective he is unnamed. The ranger assists with the aftermath of the destruction at Melaleuca as a result of Charlotte’s powers.

Sample Essay Topics

The following essay topics are included in the Neap Smartstudy guide. The study guide also includes a full essay with annotations, and many more examination style topics.

  1. “Such sorrow came to the island, and tried to drown it.”
    Discuss the impact of the natural world on the characters in Flames.

Things to consider:

  • What are the characters’ relationships with nature? Who acts with nature and who turns against it?
  • What is Robbie Arnott saying about humanity’s impact on the natural world, especially in Tasmania?
  • What is the balance between creation and destruction in the natural world?
  1. Flames is more about the darkness of Tasmania than the light.’ Do you agree?

Things to consider:

  • What does the topic mean by ‘darkness’ and ‘light’?
  • The topic refers specifically to Tasmania: what aspects of the island, such as the natural environment and the people and cities could you write about?
  • Which characters represent darkness and light?

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