Books

Robbie Arnott
The Rain Heron

Set in an unnamed country that has recently undergone a violent coup, Robbie Arnott’s The Rain Heron is a novel of a land suffused with wild animal magic: a heron that can create vast storms; a species of squid whose ink has miraculous properties and must be harvested through sanguine ritual. Ren, seeking to escape the world, has for the past half-decade made her home in a small, wild corner of this place. Soon, though, her isolation is disturbed by a group of soldiers led by the charismatic and ruthless Lieutenant Harker. The soldiers are on a search for a rain heron, thought by many to be a myth. Harker, sensing that Ren knows more than she’s letting on, begins a campaign of terror; her coercion of Ren takes the form of strategic despoliation of the wilderness – Ren’s home. Ren is shocked by the soldier’s callousness: “Ren had seen the way she stalked around the mountain, unmoved by the trees, the air, the staggering slopes and the cellophane streams, the huge and harsh beauty of it all. For Harker, the mountain was no different to a car park, an office, the bottom of the ocean; she would use it, take what she needed, burn it down, dance gracefully in the ashes and never think of it again.”

This passage brought to mind a tweet I have saved and often return to: above an image of a bare field with a gnarled, dead-looking tree and emaciated cows grazing listlessly, Callum Clayton-Dixon (@Ambeyang) notes that “the apocalyptic nature of the Australian colonial project is self-evident. Vast desolate paddocks as far as the eye can see, punctuated by a few dead eucalypts and parched creek beds, the hard dry ground trampled under countless millions of hooves.” It’s an image I’ve been unable to shake, particularly during long drives where those desolate paddocks extend as far as the eye can see. It prompts the question: what kind of people are we to do this? What does our callous treatment of the very ground under our feet say about us?

In one section of the novel, a young woman is taken out to sea with her aunt and instructed in the ritual to harvest south-sea squid ink. Soon, a stranger arrives in town, known only as “the northerner”, seeking the secret of the ritual. Zoe’s aunt and the rest of the townspeople are sceptical, but he assures them he only wants to improve their lives. “He understood why they didn’t want to tell him about the ink, he said. He knew that others like him had come to the port seeking quick fortunes, to plunder the town’s resource in harsh, destructive ways. But he was not like that, he assured them. That was not his aim. He wanted to help them.”

Writing about Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things for The Writers Bloc, Wiradjuri writer Hannah Donnelly expressed her concerns about the “callous colonial lens … being applied to the landscape” in a lot of Australian writing. In The Rain Heron – a novel where most, if not all, of the characters are assumed to be white – the northerner reads as the settler in his most potent capacity for plunder and fraud. Yet for this character and Lieutenant Harker, their foil seems not to be the people who are horrified by the trail of destruction they leave in their wake, but the environment itself. It’s a parable that is at the heart of The Rain Heron, and one that remains stubbornly inchoate for much of this book. In one scene, Daniel, a kind and sensitive medic, asks Harker what their superiors want with the rain heron. Harker shrugs: “Men want things. They hear about something and pretty soon they’re convinced it belongs to them.” It’s an answer that is at once appropriate and yet frustratingly incomplete. There’s much meaning to be had if one looks for it.

Arnott has created a set of wonderfully realised characters, particularly Harker, whose perspective we are with for much of the novel. We come to understand that her cruelty is strategic, an extension of her competence and focus: “But I have never been brave. Just strong, and at times – too many times – cruel.” The encounter with the rain heron profoundly changes her, and it is through her that Arnott’s vision coalesces into an affecting narrative, charged with symbolism and characters who hold trauma, pain and cruelty in the same space, whose relationship with the world is mediated through these scars.

As in his previous novel, Flames, Arnott is uncommonly adept at imbuing his work with a rich, lived-in feel, a world close to our own, filled with parallel myths and coinciding calamities. And as he did in Flames, Arnott reminds us he is one of the best prose stylists currently working in Australia, with writing that elegantly achieves what the novel requires of it. His is a lyrical, natural style that combines the expansiveness of a fable with fully realised detail. Arnott’s sentences are truly a pleasure to read and the characters finely studied, which gives the novel a momentum that the narrative, with its abrupt shifts in perspective and place, seems to deliberately eschew.

For much of the book, place names are intentionally vague – the port, the valley, the plateau and so on – but at times the setting becomes recognisable, with references to flora and locations that roughly align with those in Tasmania, where Arnott lives. Two-thirds of the way into the book, Harker and the soldiers come across a forest of cider gum trees, a species endemic to Tasmania, and mention is made of “small marsupials” and introduced species. Yet the decision to otherwise obscure the setting is somewhat troubling: beyond the larger questions about the ways in which settler narratives are reproduced in a country with such a rich legacy of erasure, there is also the concern that the narrative occasionally leans too much into its fable-like conceit. As Arnott weaves together the novel’s narrative threads, there emerge intriguing hints of order in his vision, but it’s not until the final sections of the book that much of it comes together.

Khalid Warsame

Text, 288pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 13, 2020 as "Robbie Arnott, The Rain Heron".

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Reviewer: Khalid Warsame