Review: The Rain Heron by Robbie Arnott

The Rain Heron, the second novel of Tasmanian writer Robbie Arnott, begins with a sort-of prologue, entitled Part 0, about the titular bird. An unnamed farmer in a a drought-stricken unnamed country survives a flood, seemingly due to the favour of the rain heron, a fantastical transparent creature that trails precipitation from its wings. Under the watch of this guardian angel her farm thrives, drawing the ire and jealousy of neighbours, one of whom breaks this precious pact and sends the region (and himself) back into ruin. It is an allegorical beginning for this book that is much about how human and environmental violence and cruelty begets violence and cruelty, and how this chain may be broken.

We next meet Ren, a middle-aged woman who has taken refuge in mountains after a military coup. She guards the knowledge of the now-assumed mythical rain heron, until soldiers led by the austere young Lieutenant Harker, all “poise and deftness that somehow bordered on violence”, come looking for it. The story unravels the chain of violence that led to Harker’s involvement in the coup, and the desperate acts that people (or rather men, as the story puts it bluntly) will go to in pursuit of the wondrous and priceless. There is a symmetry to the novel that lays bare how this corruption of spirit is passed down. It is in some ways a simple story, a journey out and back, but as it moves I found it gathered a meditative power similar to Elizabeth Lynn’s Watchtower.

The Rain Heron is a story of apocalyptic climate change, of “seasons broke”, but subtly so – it is more focussed on its characters and their motives than world-building. But what glimpses there are are tantalising. The weather no longer makes sense, people no longer make sense, so why shouldn’t there be magical creatures? Some of the most incisive writing comes at the end, when Harker looks back on her journey and the changes happening to the environment take on a disturbingly familiar specificity:

That summer millions of fish rose to the surface of the country’s largest river, bloating the banks with rot. Dry lighting licked once-wet forests into infernos. Peat fires burned underground in the marshes of the highlands, fires that might not go out for centuries. A few months later, frost entombed the roots of palm trees on the coasts. So much was ruined, either slowly or in red instants, and nothing was getting better, and nobody was doing enough about it.

I enjoyed the odd amalgamation of locations that build Arnott’s fantastical world. In parts, it appears to be Europe, the mountains clad in pines, spruces, birches and firs. In others, it is clearly Tasmanian, with a highland plateau covered in cider gums and tarns. The southerners live in city exposed to icy polar weather and surrounded by granite headlands and white beaches, much like Hobart and Tasmania’s east coast.

The book is clearly informed by Tasmania’s environmental battles, from dam-building to forestry to the latest, salmon farming. Here these politics are embodied by the rain heron, and a boutique fishing industry for magical squid ink. The rain heron is as mythic in its way as the thylacine, which was driven extinct by hunting. We exploit nature at our own peril, the book suggests, not just physical, but spiritual too. There’s something Biblical about the story’s “eye for an eye” morality and the characters’ long and painful search for healing. Everything has a price, and climate change may be the costliest, the ruin coming slowly and in “red instants”.

In his debut novel Flames Arnott showed a talent for body horror, and The Rain Heron takes this much further. Parts of this I found really unsettling – the heron’s penchant for pecking out the eyes of those who bother it; a man eaten by squids; numerous suppurating wounds. But this grotesquery is contrasted with the wonder of the magical beasts, as if they are two sides of the same coin. The heron is truly wondrous, a being more air and water than bird, that sheds water from its ethereal body and thunders when provoked. It is a depiction of nature that embraces the ugly and beautiful truths of the world.

Gay rating: not gay, although the heron and squid are quite fabulous

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