Book review: Limberlost, Robbie Arnott

The award-winning writer is in fine form as he tackles the big themes of death, love and hope.

In the surrounding copses of an orchard farm called Limberlost, 15-year-old Ned hunts rabbits in Tasmania’s river valley, their pelts to be turned into slouch hats for soldiers. Ostensibly it’s his way of contributing to the war effort, but Ned is secretly saving for a boat of his own. His older brothers, Bill and Toby, have enlisted in WWII; they are ‘faraway war-shadows’ and Ned is left behind with his emotionally damaged father (who fought in an earlier war) and his equally taciturn sister Maggie.

The narrative flits back and forth in time – we see Ned as a child, growing into a man working as a logger, and a rouseabout on cattle and sheep stations, and back again as a boy, but the mainstay is the duration of his adolescence within the confines of Limberlost. Though sensitive to his surroundings, Ned is still very much captive to the anxieties of youth and does ‘not have the language to express the sharpness of what he [is] feeling’.

Here he spins out his days in the summer shooting or laying steel-jaw traps with their iron fangs to kill as many rabbits as he can to bring alive the daydreams of boat ownership.

‘Out on the water he could sail wherever he liked, from downstream where the current ran fresh to the broad estuary in the north. Squid-filled reefs, forested coves, schools of flashing salmon, trenches of snapper, lonely jetties, private beaches on whose cold sands he could burn hidden fires.’

Unlike his previous books, with fantastical elements braided into their stories, particularly in his award-winning The Rain Heron, Robbie Arnott’s third book is more anchored in reality. Once again, however, there is mastery in the way he captures the beauty and ferocity of the natural environment, with its seasonal moods as well as the beasts that live, struggle and die within this stretch of land. Limberlost keenly observes the many animals – wild and domesticated – that Ned encounters, from the screams of Tasmanian devils fighting over a kill, to the injured quoll he keeps indefinitely, to the wayward livestock mustered and manipulated into servitude.

Despite the challenges faced and fortitude needed when working on the land, the communion Ned has for nature is poetic and quietly rapturous. ‘[Ned felt] the settling peace of shade and moss, creek and stone and wondered if the rest of the world was like this. If forests cooled the blood of people in every type of land and country.’

Read: Book review: Freedom Only Freedom, Behrouz Boochani

Limberlost tracks the texture of memory and time and there is a gentleness to this book despite its stories of ravaged animals and wounded humans. Ned’s boat hunger is obviously emblematic of his desires for freedom, escape and adventure. The essence of longing saturates the narrative, for a time lost and a future yet to be inhabited.

Limberlost by Robbie Arnott
Publisher: Text Publishing
Format: Paperback
Pages: 240pp
Publication date: 5 October 2022
RRP: $32.99

Thuy On is Reviews Editor of ArtsHub and an arts journalist, critic and poet who’s written for a range of publications including The Guardian, The Saturday Paper, Sydney Review of Books, The Australian, The Age/SMH and Australian Book Review. She was the books editor of The Big issue for 8 years. Her first book, a collection of poetry called Turbulence, came out in 2020 and was published by University of Western Australia Press (UWAP). Her next collection, Decadence, was published in July 2022, also by UWAP. Twitter: @thuy_on