Harriet McKnight’s debut novel is a rather bleak and dispiriting portrait of two women on the verge of nervous breakdowns, and of a world on the verge of environmental catastrophe.
Pina Marinelli is a middle-aged woman whose husband has early onset Alzheimer’s. The couple still live together on a property in Victoria’s East Gippsland, but Alan no longer recognises Pina. Indeed, he no longer recognises himself. Alan’s rages and outbursts of violence are becoming more frequent, and Pina now spends her days wrangling with a hostile stranger. Profoundly unhappy, she veers from resentment to self-pity and back again. Something must be done but she can’t yet bring herself to do it.
Then there is Arianna Brandt, a young scientist who runs a captive breeding program for glossy black-cockatoos. The cockies have been released into the wild, and Arianna is in the field monitoring their progress. But all is not well. Arianna is tormented by memories of her abusive father. Her mental health battles are the subject of faculty gossip. Her research partner constantly niggles and needles her with sexist jibes. And to cap it all off, the bloody birds won’t stay put. Instead of using her nesting boxes, they have made a beeline for a stand of casuarinas at the back of Pina’s place, where all is forsaken like a memory lost. This combination of stress factors triggers an impulse control disorder that has poor desolate Arianna literally tearing her hair out by the handful.
McKnight confronts the reader with the repetitive patterns of destructive thinking with which her two heroines torture themselves. Her spare and subdued narration is shot through with aggressive fragments of thought, italicised interjections of outrage and horror, which lodge in the story like shrapnel.
It all culminates in a great Australian bushfire, which McKnight associates with global warming and a nearby oil drilling operation. This leads to a reckoning everyone had hoped to put off indefinitely. It doesn’t make for a very original resolution of the pressures and tensions at work in Rain Birds, but the hectic scenes of flight in the face of the onrushing fire do at least thrill with a colour and excitement missing elsewhere.
There’s plenty to admire here – an authentic realism and a precise and delicate restraint in the landscape descriptions – but the ending, which effects no deeper change or transformation, seems a bit arbitrary. JR
Black Inc, 288pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 16, 2017 as "Harriet McKnight, Rain Birds ". Subscribe here.