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Robbie Arnott (Text Publishing, available now)

Flames is our First Book Club pick for July – read an extract from the novel here, and join us on 24 July at Hill of Content Melbourne for a free in-conversation event with the author.

Books that focus on the Australian landscape often depict the natural world in quite a specific way. Dry, barren, crushingly hot – these are all familiar literary depictions of rural Australia. In Flames, Robbie Arnott writes about the Australian wilderness in a very different way. In this book, the landscapes of Tasmania come alive, literally. Ancient spirits take physical forms, living amongst humans and animals.

At the centre of this novel is the story of the unusual McAllister family. Levi McAllister wants to build a coffin for his young sister, Charlotte, so when she dies she can be buried in the earth. This is because, on their mother’s side, the women of the family return from the dead following cremation. These resurrections are always brief, and each returned woman takes the form of the environment their ashes were scattered in. This is not the only supernatural feature of this family – Levi and Charlotte’s father is an ancient, god-like creature who began life as a flame, taking the form of a human man after falling deeply in love with their mother. When Charlotte realises Levi is making preparations for her death, she runs away, and her father’s powers are awakened in her.

Arnott writes about Tasmania with vivid precision and imbues his depictions of land and sea with a sense of magic.

Arnott writes about Tasmania with vivid precision and imbues his depictions of land and sea with a sense of magic. However, these landscapes don’t feel unrealistic because he writes about magic as if it is a regular fact of life. A tiny flame projected into the mind of a human by an ancient spirit is akin to a lie. Fishermen and seals form unbreakable bonds not dissimilar to that between a farmer and their dog. Women return from the dead, and people are more concerned about their troublemaking natures in life than their resurrections. There is, perhaps, a subtext here of masculine attitudes toward wild women – Levi wants to tether his sister, prevent her from her inevitable, wild resurrection, even though it is her fate. This desire to stamp her differences out, make her regular, is what causes a her to grow fiery – literally.

This is an incredibly unique and memorable novel. Arnott applies magical realism to an Australian context and in doing so gives the book an extraordinary energy. This is the kind of book that compels you to read not by offering a plot filled with twists and turns, but by the ability of its author to paint a rich and memorable picture with prose of an exceptionally high quality. You won’t read another Australian literary novel like this any time soon.

– Ellen Cregan

A Superior Spectre
Angela Meyer (Ventura Press, available 30 July)

Angela Meyer’s debut novel, A Superior Spectre, follows her previous collection of micro-fiction, Captives. It is apparent that Meyer has been flexing her writing muscles for some time; this is an assured debut. Her skills in short fiction work translate to paint a rich narrative through short chapters and spare dialogue.

The novel traces the fortunes of Jeff and Leonora. Jeff exists in the near future, and is dying. He has isolated himself in a remote part of Scotland, escaping his past life in Melbourne and wallowing in self-pity. Jeff is grappling with shaming sexual desires. His only company is a human-like robot and occasional interactions with his landlady.

Leonora lives a simple rural life with her father in the 1860’s Scottish Highlands. She is just beginning to explore womanhood when her father sends her to live with an aunt in Edinburgh. Wrenched from her familiar surroundings, friendless, and away from the consolation of nature, Leonora is miserable and struggles to adjust to city life and its attendant social constraints.

Meyer has given life to flawed and deeply human characters.

When Jeff experiments with a new technology that allows him to enter Leonora’s mind, their lives intersect and then blur. Jeff experiences life through Leonora’s eyes, he feels what she feels. At first, it is a distraction from his illness, a way to escape reality and his deteriorating body, but he quickly becomes obsessed with Leonora and spends more and more time occupying her. Leonora begins to recall Jeff’s memories; she catches his musical earworms; she feels his physical pain. Jeff’s sexual desires begin to dominate her thoughts and actions. Leonora’s life breaks apart as her visions increase; she fears she is possessed or going mad. She is infected by Jeff.

Meyer has conjured a world in her novel that elegantly blends a convincing speculative future with a vivid rendering of 19th-century Scotland. Her historical imagining is reminiscent of Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites and Sarah Schmidt’s See What I Have Done, novels which also feature female protagonists pushing against 19th-century conventions.

Meyer has given life to flawed and deeply human characters. Through their experiences she interrogates multiple layers of contemporary life: anxiety and loneliness, the ethical use of technology, the control of women by men, human connection with nature, and sexual desire and permissiveness. Meyer questions what society considers to be deviant and offers us ambiguity in place of an answer. This exquisite novel invites the reader to face the ghosts that haunt the dark corridors of the mind.

– Justine Hyde

One Hundred Years of Dirt
Rick Morton (MUP, available 30 July)

Rick Morton was born into a family deeply scarred by trauma. His grandfather, George, was a cruel and violent man who took pleasure in frightening and beating his wife and children. Isolated in the harsh Queensland outback, George physically and psychologically trapped his terrified family and lay the foundation of trauma that would trickle down through generations.

In his debut memoir, Morton immerses the reader in the charred and blood-soaked land of the Birdsville Track where his family’s story begins. ‘It took a particular type of person to live there,’ writes Morton. ‘The landscape was vicious and largely incompatible with life. We might not have realised, but the violence that runs through our blood is more permanently written into the landscape itself.’ Morton grew up on a cattle station with his mother, brother, sister, and father. Life on the farm is harsh and filled with the death of animals, but when a horrific accident befalls Morton’s brother, their lives are changed irrevocably.

This is a story as desolate and damaged as the land it begins on, but Morton brings it to life with compassion and transparency.

Abandoned by their father, Morton’s family are thrown into poverty. What follows is a story of survival and of a mother ‘who tried to love enough for the failures of everyone around her.’ Morton shows how the abandonment affects each child differently. His sister, only three weeks old when their father left, becomes a midwife who lets off steam by knifing wild boars. His brother, the survivor of that terrible accident, turns to drugs and continues the family’s history of violence. Morton himself is deeply scarred by his father’s inability to love and accept him, leaving him unable to love and accept himself. Morton writes about sabotaging relationships before they could begin because he could not believe that he was a person who was worthy of being loved.

Through a mixture of family history and social commentary, Morton speaks with resolute honesty and surprising humour about family and personal trauma, poverty, class, mental health, drug addiction, and sexuality. This is a story as desolate and damaged as the land it begins on, but Morton brings it to life with compassion and transparency. One Hundred Years of Dirt is an extraordinary book that delves insightfully into so many aspects of life. It is, ultimately, a tender memoir about family, trauma, and, above all, love—and what the lack of it can do to a person.

– Chloë Cooper