Book review: Gardens of Fire

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Gardens of Fire review

Reviewed by Cate Leedman

Edited by Siobhan Hodge

Title: Gardens of Fire
Author: Robert Kenny
Publication Date: 2013
Publisher: UWA Publishing

"A crazed red dancer"

Robert Kenny’s intimate memoir Gardens of Fire brings to life the fires that tore through Victoria on 7 February 2009. The Black Saturday bushfires are made real through his memories of fighting off the intense and potentially fatal blazes. Kenny’s investigative voice lays the fear and devastation that have left some Victorian residents scarred bare on the page.

Kenny tells his account of the fires clearly and openly, and as the book progresses, he discusses ways in which these flames have left a burning sensation on everyone affected. Shifts between the present voice of Kenny’s past experience within the terrifying inferno in his home of Redesdale, Victoria, and the fragments of European settler and Aboriginal history, effectively produce a contextualized journey of hope, courage, and understanding.

Despite being centrally about perseverance and survival, Gardens of Fire highlights the tragedy of the fires and the 173 people who lost their lives. While remaining unexpectedly calm during his recollections, Kenny expresses a chain of dynamic emotions that have lead him to reconsider man’s relationship with fire. We are encouraged to alter our at times naïve, irresponsible and disrespectful behaviour, and accept that fire is uncontrollable and unpredictable.

I perceived the novel’s cyclical nature to mirror the life cycle of fire, which enjoys a balancing act between man’s saving grace of warmth and life source, and earth’s ultimate destroyer of body, mind and soul. Kenny stresses that fire is the most temperamental element and that it demands respect. He wants us to retrace our relationship with fire, and refresh a new respect for the very real, humanistic qualities that it holds.

In union with this humanistic notion, fire takes on the role of antagonist for the narrator. Kenny does not cast blame on this character, nor does he express any major feelings of animosity towards the element that tore his life apart. Instead the book focuses on what should be celebrated.

Kenny’s at times bitter and critical analysis of the State authorities’ ability to show leadership, and handle such a drastic and uncontrollable event appropriately, is emphasized throughout the narrative. But despite the book’s emphasis on trauma and loss, Kenny brings humour and cynicism that creates a relatable narrative for readers.

Gardens of Fire provides a firsthand account of an experience that many never survive, and on that Saturday many did not, delivering insight to how Kenny combined skill, luck and altruism to escape a very, very near death experience.

Gardens of Fire was published in September 2013 by UWA Publishing.