This week, Insight writer Anica Boulanger-Mashberg discusses the VCE English/EAL text Flames.

Robbie Arnott’s award-winning novel Flames creates an extraordinary and textured world that combines reality and fantasy. The stories are grounded in the real world through explorations of universal themes such as conflicted sibling relationships, isolation and family grief. At the same time, the novel delves into the fantastical adventures of the elemental and the mythical: fire and flood personified; clouds and creatures as gods; people who temporarily come back from death to merge with the environments they once loved; humans transforming into animals; and animals posthumously holding power over humans.

Flames might seem at first to be a fractured narrative, but as you read the novel it becomes increasingly apparent that the characters’ lives – and therefore many of the themes and concerns of the book – weave tightly together despite stark differences in experience. The stories are constructed as distinct narratives rather than pure allegories but there is much room to identify, interpret and explore deep symbolism in the supernatural elements. For example, Allen’s horrifying transition into the cormorant might be read as a descent into madness, while Charlotte’s gradual acceptance of her near-uncontrollable capacity to spontaneously create fire could be read as her emerging self-awareness as an emotional and sexual being. This blend of the literal and the symbolic allows for divergent readings of not just characters, relationships, values and themes, but also actual events, which readers less commonly have the opportunity to interpret subjectively. Does Allen really turn into a cormorant? Does the pelt of the Esk God feel physically warm, or is it only psychological? Is the climactic biblical-scale storm the result of the Cloud God’s grief for a lost love? Or are these all ways to show the intangible experiences of being human?

The novel playfully experiments with genre, exploring a broad range of narrative modes as it winds its way between the mundane and the remarkable, the real and the fantastical. It’s hard to believe so many versions of reality could become a cohesive work, but Arnott’s very close attention to detail ties the various subplots inextricably together. Some of the overlaps between stories are obvious – such as between the death of the Esk God (the rakali), Thurston Hough’s obsession with the rakali’s pelt, and the preoccupation with coffins that leads Levi to Hough. Others are more subtle, such as the significant events that happen to occur at Notley Fern Gorge at various disparate points in the characters’ lives.

In this tightly structured novel, there is the opportunity to explore the characteristics of numerous narrative genres. The book has chapters constructed in the voice, tone and style of:

  • a hard-boiled detective novel
  • a road trip
  • a gossip column
  • a gothic fable
  • myth and folklore
  • an epistolary narrative (personal letters)
  • magic realism
  • literary and genre fiction.

Chapters shift not just in terms of the perspective they are told from (sections are associated variously, in first person or in third-person limited, with different characters), but also in the style they are adopting. This provides a rare and engaging chance to discuss, analyse, and compare and contrast various techniques, characteristics, language choices, character types and central ideas of various genres all in one novel – and it’s not even a long novel! It’s very accessible, and spreading the characters’ stories across this wide range of styles gives us access to very different aspects of their worlds, which in turn allows for an intricate study of relationships and the way in which they reveal key ideas. The varying range of styles also offers plenty of potential for a discussion of structure and construction, and how these contribute significantly to the impact of a text.

The book is deeply emotive and emotional – scenes such as the death of Karl’s seal and Allen’s gradual transition may be unsettling with their intensity – and yet there is humour too (primarily in the gossipy chapter about Hough’s local community), keeping readers engrossed in a journey of contrast. This also encourages a close examination of how tone and mood are constructed: not just through language choices but through perspective and by making use of the audience’s developing knowledge of the characters.

Almost cinematic in its use of language, the novel’s arresting sensory imagery and psychological insights foster a close reading of the text and will facilitate rich analysis of language choices. The emotive language also creates vivid descriptions of landscape and environment, submerging the reader into the moody, beautiful atmosphere and natural world of Tasmania – an Australian state with a very particular character.


Sample essay topics:

  • How does Arnott use setting to develop characters and relationships?
  • ‘The focus of the novel is not human relationships but relationships between humans and the natural environment.’ To what extent do you agree?
  • How does the shifting narrative perspective in Flames allow the text to explore the notion of loneliness?
  • ‘The central characters in Flames are all driven by personal quests.’ Discuss.
  • You’re not yourself.” How does Flames explore the idea of identity?


Need more help getting to grips with Flames? Make sure you get our Insight Text Guide for Flames by Anica Boulanger-Mashberg. With a chapter-by-chapter analysis, discussion of characters and relationships, in-depth analysis of themes, ideas and values, practice essay topics and much more, the Insight Text Guide for Flames provides a clear, comprehensive analysis of the whole text.

Insight Text Guides are produced by Insight Publications, an independent Australian educational publisher.


Image credit: Bertnatskaia Oksana/shutterstock

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