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.

2021 Miles Franklin Literary Award, Literary prizes

The 2021 Miles Franklin Literary Award shortlist

The shortlist for the 2021 Miles Franklin Literary Award was announced yesterday. It’s a strange mix of mainly new-to-me authors writing about diverse — and topical — subjects, including illegal immigration, immigration and environmental disaster.

As per usual, I have only read one title on this list — Amanda Lohrey’s rather beautiful and contemplative novel, Labyrinth — but there’s a couple here (The Rain Heron and The Inland Sea) that are already on my TBR and which I might read as part of #20BooksofSummer.

Here are the nominees in alphabetical order by author’s surname. The summaries are from the Miles Franklin website. I’ve included availability information for international readers where possible:

Amnesty by Aravind Adiga (Pan Macmillan)
Danny – Dhananjaya Rajaratnam – is an illegal immigrant in Sydney having fled Sri Lanka. For three years he’s been trying to create a new identity for himself, but then one morning he learns a female client of his has been murdered. Should Danny come forward with knowledge he has about the crime and risk getting deported, or saying nothing? Over the course of a single day, he must wrestle with his conscience and decide if a person without rights still has responsibilities.
This book is available in the UK and USA in paperback and ebook editions.

The Rain Heron by Robbie Arnott (Text Publishing)
Robbie Arnott’s second novel is equal parts horror and wonder, and utterly gripping. Ren lives alone on the remote frontier of a country devastated by a coup. High on the forested slopes, she survives by hunting and trading – and forgetting. But when a young soldier comes to the mountains in search of a local myth, Ren is inexorably drawn into an impossible mission.
This book is available in the UK and USA in paperback and ebook editions.

At the Edge of the Solid World by Daniel Davis Wood (Brio Books)
In a village in the Swiss Alps, a husband and wife find their lives breaking apart following the death of their firstborn. On the other side of the world, in their hometown of Sydney, a man commits an act of shocking violence that captures international attention. As the husband recognises signs of his own grief in both the survivors and the perpetrator, his fixation on the case feeds into insomnia, trauma and an obsession with the terms on which we give value to human lives.
This book does not appear to be published outside of Australia.

The Labyrinth by Amanda Lohrey (Text Publishing)
This deeply meditative book follows Erica Marsden, who, in a state of grief, retreats to a quiet hamlet near the prison where her son, an artist, has been imprisoned for homicidal negligence. Living in a rundown shack, she obsesses over creating a labyrinth by the ocean. To build it, Erica will need the help of strangers. This is a hypnotic story of guilt and denial as well as a meditation on how art can be both ruthlessly destructive and restorative.
This book is available in the UK and USA in ebook format.

Lucky’s by Andrew Pippos (Pan Macmillan)
The book centres around Lucky, a second-generation Chicago-born clarinet-playing Greek man who finds himself in wartime Australia in the ’40s, escaping service by impersonating “king of swing” Benny Goodman. Lucky comes into money through personal tragedy and uses it to run a successful franchise of cafe diners. Spanning decades, this unforgettable epic tells a story about lives bound together by the pursuit of love, family, and new beginnings.
This book does not appear to be published outside of Australia.

The Inland Sea by Madeleine Watts (Pushkin Press)
This debut novel is about coming of age in a dying world and exploring our capacity for harming ourselves, each other and the world around us. Facing the open wilderness of adulthood, our young narrator finds that the world around her is coming undone. She works part-time as an emergency dispatch operator, tracking the fires and floods that rage across Australia during an increasingly unstable year. Drinking heavily, sleeping with strangers, she finds herself wandering Sydney’s streets late at night as she navigates a troubled affair with an ex-lover. Reckless and adrift, she begins to contemplate leaving.
This book is available in the UK and USA in hardcover and ebook editions.

The winner of the $60,000 prize will be named on 15 July, which doesn’t leave that much time to read the entire shortlist, if that’s what you plan on doing!

You can read the official press release here. And read what The Guardian has to say about it here.

Have you read any of these books? Or have any piqued your interest?