The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner

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The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: Set in 1970s New York and to a lesser extent Italy, The Flamethrowers is a beguiling and compulsively readable novel written with great style. A young girl is caught up in the art world of dreamers and raconteurs before coming face to face with reality.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 400 Date: June 2013
Publisher: Harvill Secker
ISBN: 9781846557910

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Set mainly in New York's art district in the late 1970s, Rachel Kushner's The Flamethrowers tells the story of a young girl, known only to the reader as Reno, after the city she comes from. She's a girl who loves motorbikes and photography, but struggles to find her place in the New York art scene. When she falls for the estranged son, Sandro, of the Italian motorbike manufacturer Valero, himself an artist in New York, Reno finds herself in situations she cannot control.

The Flamethrowers is a difficult book to describe. It feels unbalanced at times, with one of the main events not occurring until three quarters of the way through the book. It's also not easy to even say what it's about. It covers business, from the start of the Valera family interest in motorbikes told in another strand of the book which frustratingly ends mid way through the book, through the oppression of Brazilian rubber tappers in a small but perfectly written chapter, ending with the family business controlled by Sandro's brother in Italy facing the political labour issues of the period. Meanwhile Sandro enjoys the wealth which allows him to create art. Eventually these two collide and Reno is caught up in the middle, but she is a person who seems to go with the flow rather than making choices of her own. Yet somehow this imbalance in the book makes it all the more compelling. Add to that Kushner's often unexpected turn of phrase and I was gripped by it from start to finish.

In fact, it may well be the slightly unbalanced feel of the book that helps the reader to associate with Reno, a girl who is very much on the edge and not in control of her life. In some ways she's a cipher for events that happen around her but this doesn't detract from the book in any way. The differences between social and political disorder in Italy in the late 1970s are contrasted by rioting in New York towards the end of the book which, not unlike recent rioting and looting in the UK, seem to arise out of pure opportunism.

Often novels that feature the art world can border on pretension but this doesn't happen here. Kushner's artists are dreamers and raconteurs who seem to struggle to differentiate between imagination and reality at a time when there are real social issues at play. Similarly Sandro's mother and brother seem completely oblivious to the demands and needs of their workers in Italy. It is in managing this difference that Reno finds herself, often unwittingly.

Ultimately though, this is a novel that I admired more for the writing than for the plot development as such. Kushner covers a lot of issues, and it's far from clear at first reading what her message, if any, is. Like many very good novels, it's a book I've found myself thinking about long after finishing it, but I'm never quite sure what the message is. Kushner is a writer who gives a sense of space to her setting and in this Reno is cast adrift. The publishers note it's an 'exploration of the mystique of the feminine' which I must say I never quite picked up on. For me, it's more about the difference between dreamers and those who take action to back their beliefs. Her style is captivating and compelling though in equal measure and she's a writer that is well worth checking out. Images from the book still flit through my mind long after reading.

Our grateful thanks to the kind people at Harvill Secker for sending us this book.

Although Kushner's style is quite distinctive, if you enjoy this style then Canada by Richard Ford and Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru will, I'm sure, appeal to you. Both these books have a similar sense of space to them.

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