Updated: Jun 2
“Daniel thought about what he knew of rain herons – how in the stories they were associated with rainfall, abundance and harvests, but also with floods and destruction and death.”
The story opens with a starving farmer. Starving literally. It seems whatever she decides to do with her land, plant crops, raise livestock, fails. She tells us she has forgotten what it is like to go to bed unhungry. She is neither lazy nor unskilled, yet all her attempts at producing something, anything, are unsuccessful. The farmer has endured this for six long years, six years since her parents died and left her the farm.
Then one day there was a violent storm and the farmer was thought to have perished, somewhere within its violence and destruction. But when the storm subsided, she was found by a group of teenagers hanging in a tree, alive, with what appeared to be a ghostly heron standing vigil over her scarecrow strewn body.
Since that storm, the farmer's fortunes changed. Her crops not only grew, they prospered, wheat and rice growing in abundance. The animals no longer died, were no longer sickly, they were a picture of health, bursting with energy. The farm was so successful that the farmer became rich.
Over time her farm became the most successful in the valley. The farmer was a woman loved by all and she shared her new wealth around the valley and community. And on cloudless nights people said they could see the great ghostly heron flying above her fields.
Everybody was happy. Everybody but the son of her closest neighbour. With this son, jealously reared its ugly head. As with most jealous people he thought only of himself, forgetting the six years that the farmer had endured before her luck changed and the heron appeared. He and his father had been suffering since the storm and all the son could think of was that it was not fair.
He knew that it was the heron that had brought the good fortune to the farmer and he knew where the heron roosted. The same oak tree where the farmer was found. He decided to kill the heron, mistakenly thinking that this would somehow save his father’s farm. However, the son was dealing with something he did not understand and payed the price.
The son was found the next day with hideous injuries. His eyes having been gouged out. The heron disappeared and an intense heatwave descended on the valley destroying everybody’s crops.
This first part of the story is used to introduce the reader to the rain heron. Establish that it is very real, not just a myth, and what it is capable of. It’s a wonderful little narrative of it’s own, which leads into the main story.
The first part of the story takes place in a dystopian future where a coup has taken place and many people have fled the cities. One of these people is Ren. After escaping the city, Ren had been living tough for five years, in the mountains. Starvation and malnutrition plagued her every day. She lost count of the number of times and different ways she nearly perished. Ren had almost given up, given in to the mountain, acknowledging it would take her life, when she met Barlow and his son. After their initial meeting, Ren and Barlow work out a system of bartering and trading, enabling Ren with supplies and skills to survive.
One day a group of soldiers arrive, and we eventually learn they are looking for the rain heron. It is here that we meet the true protagonist of the novel. Lieutenant Harker, and what an incredible character Arnott has given us.
The narrative will then jump back in time for part two, and this part of the book is used to fill the reader in on Harker’s background and childhood, however again, like the first part of the book, this part’s narrative is strong enough to stand alone as a tale in it’s own right. Also, like part one, it has the feeling of a fable or parable with a message to be learned.
Part three returns to Ren’s present. Harker and the soldiers determined to find the rain heron.
Part four is told from Harker’s perspective. This is my favourite part of the book, simply because Harker is the most interesting character that I have read this year.
“But I have never been brave. Just strong, and at times, too many times, cruel.”
With Harker, Robbie has created an amazing character. Not a likeable one, in fact it is easier to dislike Harker. She is cruel and yet she is strong and determined. She recognises, acknowledges her cruelty, and knows that she has performed despicable acts throughout her life. And yet, she also retains a hint of kindness. An urge to do the right thing, and we see glimpses of this through her thoughts and conversations in this final part of the novel.
As with “Flames” Arnott’s flare for writing mesmerising poetic prose, especially in describing the natural world, its storms, the fauna and flora, is found, at times, it seems on every page. And although the country where this tale unfolds is never given, the narrative not needing one, the mention of marsupials, eucalypt trees, droughts and storms, give the location a very antipodean feel.
This is a magical wonderful book. 5 Stars!
Thankyou to Text Publishing and Netgalley for the ARC.
Robbie Arnott was born in Launceston in 1989. His writing has appeared in Island, the Lifted Brow, Kill Your Darlings and the 2017 anthology Seven Stories. He won the 2015 Tasmanian Young Writers’ Fellowship and the 2014 Scribe Nonfiction Prize for Young Writers. Robbie lives in Hobart and is an advertising copywriter.
There is a link here to a short little interview with Robbie Arnott on the Books+Publishing site - https://www.booksandpublishing.com.au/articles/2020/04/01/148463/in-our-nature-robbie-arnott-on-the-rain-heron/