The Rain Heron by Robbie Arnott (Text Publishing)
Review by Joy Lawn
The Rain Heron is literary art. The author has deftly crafted an audacious idea into an original, compelling work.
Author Robbie Arnott exploded onto the Australian and global literary scene in 2018 with his debut novel Flames. Flames has been highly recognised, being shortlisted for the prestigious Not the Booker Prize and multiple other awards.
Flames is a unique story shrouded in a gothic, macabre Tasmanian setting. I thought it brilliant. His new novel, The Rain Heron is better.
Intricate strands and layers in The Rain Heron unfold to reveal absorbing, but seemingly disparate, tales of several strong females. The farmer is buffeted by extremes of weather; Ren the hermit fights to survive on the mountain she loves; Zoe, the girl, protects the secret of the squid ink and Lieutenant Harker, the soldier, hunts the rain heron.
Gender and other roles confound expectations. Characters who seem to be peripheral become important and take over the narrative. Stories entwine.
The rain heron is the elusive symbol, the source of the teasing, tensile narrative thread. The bird is transparent like blue rain and merges with the water as if they are one. It rises from a pool as bird-shaped vapour or rain droplets and can emanate steam or ice.
At times the rain heron seems to give prosperity by bringing rain and changing the weather. It is associated with abundance and harvest but also with flood, destruction and death, particularly for those living on the land. It is sought by men who have everything.
The girl, Zoe, lives in a freezing coastal port with her aunt who laughs, often inappropriately. Her aunt shows her how to lure and feed squid with her own blood, which is then transformed into coloured ink.
A northerner who tries to discover the secret of the south-sea ink destroys the equilibrium of the community and their commerce. Zoe’s life is changed by their encounter.
The fantastical elements of the coloured squid ink and the rain heron create wonder. The surrealism is constrained within these creatures to great impact. Place and people are told in realism mode. Arnott blends his genres impeccably. Nothing is overdone or superfluous in this fable.
Lieutenant Harker is ordered to “a distant mountain in search of a myth”. She believes that wounded Ren knows where the rain heron nests and makes her life as a forager in the wilderness impossible by sabotaging her snares and fish gullies, salting and smashing her garden, tainting her water supply and burning her antibiotics. Harker threatens her with the lives of Barlow, the trader who helps her, and his son. Ren is also hiding a secret about her own son.
Harker is a strong leader of her troop of men, which includes compassionate medic Daniel, in their quest for the bird made of rain. Ren taunts the lieutenant about being ordered to chase a fairy tale because of her youth. Once her coercion of Ren bears fruit, Harker understands that she will never be free because “I’d brought a myth to life”.
The Rain Heron is also a journey through place and the natural world – timeless landscapes of “persistent beauty”. We are immersed in the ice-glazed sharp contours of the coast, the fresh wild scent of the forest and the uncontrollable drought, storms and flooding of the farm.
Climate change is signalled by “the screeching wind and aching-cold sky [as] winter showed its claws”. Seasonal patterns become uncommon. The world is quietly but relentlessly pillaged. What role might the rain heron play?
Narrative tension comes from the quest to capture the rain heron and its hinted legendary power. When children grow up, they are told it is an imaginary creature. Those who continue to believe do so as “an act of faith”. The rain heron is an enigma – generous at times but also punitive, taking the eye of anyone who threatens it.
While the bird does not live under human conventions and emotions, the story is ultimately about people and their relationships. Kindness is exalted. The farmer shares with her community, Ren tries to protect her friend, Zoe loves her aunt. Although harsh like the heron, Lieutenant Harker is drawn to caring medic Daniel and gentle Alec, a failed soldier.
Like the bird, the writing is multifaceted. Characters and plot are etched with a trimmed quill whilst the sensory colours of the rain heron and glowing ink enrich the world of the myth.
When the northerner, the seeker of squid ink, views a painting of the ocean, he is entranced by the quality and depth of its brightness and texture. It is “an artwork laced with ink”, a perfect metaphor for this luminous tale.
Joy Lawn is a literary critic
My review of The Rain Heron originally appeared in the Australian newspaper in 2020.
The Rain Heron has just been shortlisted for the 2022 William Saroyan International Prize for Writing.