In a mountain forest, soldiers trample a hermit’s garden, smashing her crops and tearing down her traps. Led by a ruthless young lieutenant, they’re hunting for a rain heron; a powerful, mythical bird made of water that can control the weather in what is a climate-ravaged, dying landscape. Ren, the hermit, knows where to find it. But its capture comes at a terrible cost, and her life will be forever intertwined with the young lieutenant’s.
Author Robbie Arnott’s writing is as refreshing as a wash of rain; no-one is producing fiction quite like him. Of course, it is easy to compare him to fellow Tasmanian author Richard Flanagan, but it is perhaps often reductive: Arnott’s lyrical writing is saturated with mystery and old magic, more like a fairy tale than a Richard Flanagan impression, and undeniably unique enough to stand alone ‒ commendable for a young novelist.
The Rain Heron reads like a fable, exquisite and melancholy, and Arnott’s love of landscape and nature is the most striking aspect of the novel.
In fact, Arnott’s writing is strongest and most unique when it is at its most surreal. The passages moving characters or plot from A to B have a tendency to read flat, and the prose, while wildly lyrical and evocative in places, is overwrought within these more traditional structures.
The change in perspective between Ren and the lieutenant is almost disorienting, and the duality and contrast of these two characters at the heart of the novel, both victims of the landscape and harshness of this strange new world but with wildly different responses to it, would benefit from further development.
These technical problems emphasise that Arnott is instead at his strongest when freed from the constraints of more procedural prose, structures and dialogue: when he is instead put to use evoking nature, or detailing the delicate dance between the natural world and mankind. In blunt terms, he’s best when he’s ‘weird’.
The Rain Heron is a powerful allegory of not just man’s relationship to nature, but nature’s relationship to man. What happens when the natural order and balance of the world is abused, disrespected? What happens when we take and take, but give nothing back? What happens when we overstay our welcome? Sadly, we know the answer to these questions all too well.
The titular bird is the vehicle through which Arnott explores these themes; a poignant allegory for the storm of nature, a reminder that it cannot and should not be contained. The Rain Heron is a climate novel disguised as a folk tale. Arnott should be commended for this rare skill of blending what feels like timeless mythology with a dire warning for our future.
3 ½ stars out of 5
The Rain Heron by Robbie Arnott
Publisher: text Publishing
Categories: Fiction, Australian
Release Date: 2 June 2020