20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2021), 2021 Miles Franklin Literary Award, Atlantic Books, Australia, Author, Book review, dystopian, Fiction, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Robbie Arnott, Setting

‘The Rain Heron’ by Robbie Arnott

Fiction – Kindle edition; Atlantic Books; 288 pages; 2020.

Robbie Arnott’s The Rain Heron is quite unlike anything I’ve read before. It defies convention because it’s a seamless blend of literary fiction, myth, fairytale and dystopia. Perhaps it could best be described as an “eco fable”? Regardless, it’s a wonderfully evocative and compelling tale about humankind’s obsession with exploiting nature to make money — seemingly at any cost.

Fairytale about a mythical bird

In this masterfully created tale, which is split into four parts, we are introduced to the rain heron, a mythical bird that brings rain wherever it goes. It has blue-grey feathers that are so pale you can see straight through them, and whenever it flaps its wings a thick spray of water falls from them, almost as if it generates its own rain.

In a world beset by drought, it’s a much sought-after creature, offering abundance and helping boost harvests, but it also comes with risks: the bird is also associated with frosts, floods, destruction — and sometimes death.

In Part 1 we meet Ren, an older woman who is living in a cave on a mountainside in the forest. She’s self-sufficient, eating berries and other plants, hunting deer for meat and occasionally trapping a fish for her supper. She barters with a man and his young son living nearby, with whom she exchanges items — fleece gloves, vitamins, boots, vegetable seeds — that she cannot get elsewhere.

The trio is careful to avoid contact with other humans, especially the soldiers that have recently infiltrated the area and who are on a mission to find and capture the sole rain heron that they believe lives in the vicinity.

Ren knows where the rain heron lives. She was introduced to it by her mother as a young girl. But when the soldiers find her and become threatening, she’s left with no option other than to show them where it roosts. This sets into motion a drastic — and deadly — chain of events.

Back in time

The story, which reads like a fairytale, doesn’t have a single narrator, nor follow a linear route. We go back in time to meet the female soldier — Harker, as she is known —  who puts so much pressure on Ren to offer up her secrets. In Part 2 we discover her way of life before the military coup that transformed the world into such a strange and menacing place.

This change in direction is a little disorientating to begin with, but it sets the scene for the rest of the novel.

Here, we discover that Harker had a happy childhood living with her aunt, who made her living from the “inking grounds” — a secret location out at sea where squid are caught, drained of their ink and then released back into the water without harm. (This, by the way, is not how ink is actually removed from squid — in the real world the squid are caught and killed first.)

This sustainable practice comes under threat when a northerner arrives in the port town seeking a way to make a lot of money quickly. He knows that the locals farm ink, which is worth a lot of money, but he doesn’t know how to do it and no one wants to share the secret with him.

Capitalistic tensions

This tension between a capitalist wanting to turn a secret into a business idea really does set the theme and tone of The Rain Heron, which is very much a book about humankind’s incapacity to just leave nature alone, to appreciate it intrinsically rather than trying to make money out of it.

In the final parts of the novel, which are essentially a road trip beset with danger and violence, this theme is developed further: how far would you go to capture a creature that may make you rich or give you an advantage over others?

It’s a beautifully realised tale told in graceful, elegant prose, which includes lush descriptions of landscapes and minimal dialogue. There’s a fable-like feel to the story, one that conjures up memories of other books I have read — think The Road meets Voyage of the Dawn Treader (and all those Narnia books) meets The Girl with Glass Feet meets The Silver Crown.

I love that we don’t know anything about this world — the politics or the events which have lead to soldiers taking over — nor the specific location (although I imagine it’s Tasmania, seeing that is where the author is from). Arnott simply plops you into this universe he has created and it all feels so real and vivid that you don’t need any explanations: you just accept it for what it is.

The ways in which he explores our fragile relationship with the environment is wonderfully evoked. It’s ripe with symbolism and meaning. This is the kind of novel you can really get lost in. I loved it.

The Rain Heron has been shortlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award, the winner of which will be announced next week (15 July). And yes, if you haven’t guessed already, I’d be very happy to see this one take the prize.

This is my 5th book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I purchased it in July last year.

21 thoughts on “‘The Rain Heron’ by Robbie Arnott”

    1. I basically read this in two afternoons… a relatively quick read. I foolishly thought the Miles Franklin was announced this week, which is why I read this now, but I was a week ahead of myself 🤦🏻‍♀️ But anyway, I was pleasantly surprised by this one having never read a review of it online.

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        1. There are too many books and not enough time. Last year I spent a fortune on new books from my local indie store and I have only read a fraction of them. But I bought this one on Kindle because it was only 99p during a flash sale. I try to limit the number of Kindle books I buy because they tend to just sit on the device and I completely forget about them.

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          1. Yes, that’s what happens with mine too. I only buy them on Kindle if I can’t get them any other way (often the case with books from Africa and India) and then I forget them. I’m trying to put them all on a Kindle shelf at Goodreads so that I don’t forget where they are, but I’m going to have to reorganise them into a Kindle-read shelf and a Kindle-to-read shelf.

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          2. I’ve just done it… it’s not quite as bad as I thought, I have 99 to read, and 191 that I’ve read (mostly Balzac short stories from when I was reading La Comedie Humaine). And some of those 99 are old classics that I downloaded in a rush of blood to the head, rather than contemporary novels that I do really really want to read.

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          3. Oh, you’re very good. I reckon I’ve got 200+ on my Kindle! My “rule” was to never spend more than £5 on an ebook (my kindle is attached to uk store) unless I was going to read it right then and couldn’t get it any other way. So most of these are less than £2. I refuse to join Australian Amazon and when I eventually cut all financial ties with the UK I’m afraid I won’t be buying any more ebooks. I don’t think I’m going to run out any time soon. Lol.

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          4. I know what you mean, Australian Amazon is really insular. Whoever chooses the catalogue seems to think that all we want is popular fiction from here or the US. It’s very frustrating when I find something that I do want on one of the other Amazon sites and can’t get it from the Australian one. Nearly all my purchases were bought before they introduced the Australian site, which is worse than useless as far as I’m concerned.

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          5. Oh, it’s not the insular thing, it’s the fact that I’d rather have my money circulating in the local community than going to a big faceless corporation that is NOT a good global citizen. It always infuriates me when people bemoan the death of the high street (in the UK, but I can see it happening here in Australia too) but don’t see the actual connection wit their own online shopping habits. I love my local bookshop here in Fremantle and I am more than happy to spend full dollar on a novel knowing I’m supporting a local business. (I’m not a complete angel, though, as I do, occasionally, buy a cheap book from Target. Sssshhh, don’t tell anyone.)

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  1. I’m often unenthused by new releases, including prize longlists. But this one I’ll buy straight away (and read it soon I hope). And it sounds too good to win the MF.

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    1. Knowing your love of science fiction, I think this one will appeal to you, Bill. It’s not science fiction per se but it’s definitely other worldly.

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    1. I want to read Flames now… I received an ARC back in the day (in London) and just never got around to it. Plus, I remember thinking it didn’t really sound like my sort of thing. I may have to invest in a new copy or see whether it’s available at my local library.

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  2. I do enjoy novels where the setting is unclear – it somehow untethers the narrative from any prior knowledge about that geography/culture so you can just focus on what the author is projecting.

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    1. Yes, that’s very true – the lack of background detail and the uncertainty of the location didn’t worry me at all; it just made me focus all the more on the storytelling, which is superb. And strangely, even though I didn’t mention it in my review, there’s no mention of dates/times – it could be set at any time in the past, present or future.

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  3. Thrilled to read another rave review for Robbie Arnott – I’m a huge fan. I read this last year and found it mesmerising. He is a writer to watch. I hope you go back and check out his first book, Flames. I loved it too.

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