The Rain Heron
by Robbie Arnott
Text Publishing, $29.99 pb, 288 pp
In an unnamed land under the thrall of a mysterious coup, mountain-dweller Ren wants only to live off the grid, undisturbed by human contact. Ren’s familiarity with the natural world becomes a liability when a band of soldiers comes seeking information that only she can provide: the whereabouts of a fabled bird with the ability to make it rain.
Despite a decided ambiguity about exactly where and when The Rain Heron takes place, Robbie Arnott conjures locations with a richness that belies their generic signifiers (‘the valley’, ‘the mountain’, ‘the port’, etc.). This results in a world that, while less idiosyncratic than the Tasmania of Arnott’s critically acclaimed début, Flames (2018), feels equally true to the author’s imagination and is expressive of his trademark flair for imbuing landscapes with symbolic resonance.
Although shifts in setting and perspective are handled gracefully, a level of trust in the author is a prerequisite, as the thrust of the narrative is not always clear. Such trust pays off generously. One of the starkest transitions – which takes the reader from the action in the mountains to a cold seaport where a girl learns the ancient art of harvesting squid ink – is also revelatory, its significance rippling outward to inform the wider narrative.
Arnott has a knack for sketching frontier communities. Often, his characters are extensions of their environments, less notable for the words they speak than the way they hold themselves and the scars they bear. It is easy to believe in the power the land has over its inhabitants, as Arnott writes it: a land where humans and squid symbiotically exchange fluids, crops flourish on the favour of ancient birds, and animal wrath determines the course of history.
The Rain Heron’s environmental concerns, paired with its allegorical quality, could be didactic in less assured hands. By privileging the laws of his fictional universe without reference to contemporary debates, Arnott weaves a narrative that feels both timely and timelessly engaging. A powerful meditation on human greed and frailty, The Rain Heron also leaves room for redemption. This bracing follow-up to Flames will reinforce Arnott’s reputation for unusual, risk-taking literary fiction.