Is Robbie Arnott the Tasmanian Wordsworth? For some artists, landscape is both inspiration and filter, and the Tasmanian wilderness is to Arnott what the Lakes District was to Wordsworth. The Rain Heron (Text) has an intriguing human cast: a woman who lives in a mountain cave, a man and a boy foraging on the edge of a village, a small band of soldiers led by an impassive woman who moves with the grace of a dancer. But the landscape dominates: hills, trees, mosses, gullies, places reminiscent of the Jurassic period, perhaps, some time before the reach of humans. The setting, though, is now well within human reach. At its heart, in this near future, is a myth about a bird, a heron that has extraordinary powers. It can change the weather, bring rain or drought. It can be sweet or savage. The soldiers want the bird and they know that the woman in the cave knows where it lives.
Arnott’s first novel, Flames, won the 2019 Margaret Scott Prize in the Tasmanian Premier’s Literary Prizes. Flames revealed Arnott’s discipline in maintaining a line between the magical and the humdrum, which stopped him being annoying. And he does this again. The natural world is real and marvellous in the sense that it is full of things at which to marvel, and the most shocking, most violent acts are not those of humans against humans but humans against the natural world. Arnott writes about a type of human animal who believes they ordered up nature bespoke. The soldiers are hunting the bird as a trophy, not for any power it has.
Part One is preceded by some brief pages called Part 0, a modern parable positioning the novel. It describes a farmer whose fortunes change from ill luck to bounty when the fabled bird visits her. In her years of luck, the woman is magnanimous with her fortune but the actions of a deprived and ignorant child undo it all. Part One, describing the soldiers hunting the bird, has a nice tension between terror and hope. The graceful leader has a ponytail that catches the morning light, and the reader’s impulse is to assume kindness and goodness until a few sharp brutalities tell otherwise. That the menace is beautiful will put any reader off-kilter. We’ve just stepped into another world.
Arnott’s world wobbles between now and the future. It’s a comfortless place. People are defensive, withdrawn into small bands, and trust is an archaic notion. The children have never known innocence because their first lessons had to be in survival. All emotion, insight, the refinements of civilised human behaviour, have been honed for reflexive defence. Because of this, the characters are assembled as if they belong on the pages of a graphic novel rather than explored with imaginative warmth. In the vigilant future, perhaps imaginative warmth will be just another outdated virtue. The Rain Heron is an unsettling adult jigsaw.
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