Robbie Arnott: The Rain Heron

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Every now and then I feel obliged to read another dystopic novel. It’s been a while since I read Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel where a group of travelling players are the last people left on an earth destroyed by a pandemic.

Now Robbie Arnott, a young Tasmanian author, in his second novel creates a world where the environment is suffering from bouts of drought and flood and the country has been subject to a military take-over. Grim stuff. But Arnott’s writing is lyrical, and his division of the story between folk tale elements, and the individual’s struggle for survival, makes for compelling reading. Here is the rain heron, the bird whose presence seems to affect the fertility of the land.

On cloudless nights the great heron could be seen flying above her fields, cold rain spraying from its wings, the moon shining clear and bright through its feathers…

At its highest point, in a clawing crown of branches, sat a bird. It looked like a heron, although it was too big, too blue, too alien. Huge and silent, it was running its long beak through its pale cerulean plumage. Ren watched it groom itself, transfixed by the sight. Water was dripping from the feathers as the bird preened, shedding in a stream of moisture that fell and collected at the base of the tree.

Ren is a strong character, a survivor living off the land, and under pressure from Harker the female army lieutenant to lead her to the bird, so she can capture it for the Generals. Eventually Ren gives in, having no option but to protect the land she lives with so closely.

There is some wonderful nature writing in this book; the description of the work of the squid ink collectors is gripping, as is the substance itself

When mixed with other colours of dye…it vastly enhanced the qualities of that colour, in the same way that salt brings out depth of flavour in food. Adding it to a matte red would bring out a bright pop of open-vein crimson, while mixing it with basic purple would create violent blinks of violet…

But again, intruders come from the outside world to destroy this way of life.

The bird is captured, it is never quite clear why, and a long, long journey takes place through dried up fields and deserted villages to bring it to a nature reserve. There is one man waiting to receive it.

The soldiers, apart from their lieutenant, all leave in the army vehicle. Later two people take a vehicle and the bird and journey back to return it to its home.

But, Dear Readers, am I being a pedant, a kill-joy, when I ask the question that is uppermost in my mind; what did they use fuel? Never a mention of cans of diesel, never a mention of adjusting some solar device so the vehicle could keep running. In a devastated world there are no petrol stations. In Station Eleven they travel on foot or with horse drawn carts.

If society has collapsed and citizens have fled (or died) please don’t have your characters going on mammoth drives without any mention of their power source.

In amongst the praise for this novel I am yet to read any other comment about this. Do you think the writer should have dealt with this issue?

5 thoughts on “Robbie Arnott: The Rain Heron

  1. I like the rain heron, and that it gets returned to its place. I haven’t read sci-fi in a very long time, but Regina and Anthea would 100% agree with you that the story hasn’t been quite well enough thought out when it omits such a critical part of world-building. The source of energy would affect every other aspect of the physical and cultural environment, including what people ate, where they lived, and how they related to each other. Ren herself must have a source of energy (probably, having not read the story) — wood? Something else?

    Thanks, Gert!

    1. You are right Teri. Ren makes fire by rubbing sticks together. Every energy source is named; except for the fuel for the motor vehicles. I felt it was a big gap in the story.

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