Towards the end of 2018 I was sent a review copy of a book that I wasn’t at all sure about. It looked a little too wacky for my taste but the publisher was a favourite of mine so I decided to give it a go. Not only did Robbie Arnott’s Flames end up on my books of the year list I included it on my Booker Prize wishlist the following year, more in hope than expectation it has to be said. You can imagine, then, that when The Rain Heron turned up, I was delighted. Set some time after a military coup against the backdrop of a world beset by weather extremes, Arnott’s beautifully expressed novel explores themes of love, redemption and hope in the face of a disaster of our own making.
But more curious than this was what they saw next: a huge heron, the colour of rain, suddenly emerging from the flood in a fast, steep flight, leaving not even a ripple on the water beneath it
Ren lives in a cave in the mountains. Every week she meets Barlow bartering deerskins and dried fish for the basics she can’t provide for herself. A trust has grown between them but she hides where she lives even from him, becoming fearful when he tells her he’s seen soldiers searching the area. The country has suffered a coup from which Ren has fled. When she sees a small company of soldiers, led by a woman, she fears not just for her own safety but for the rain heron nesting at the top of the mountain. The soldiers’ commander is careful in her pursuit, but brutal in her tactics eventually entrapping Ren who has no choice but to lead her to the rain heron she’s been commanded to capture. Lieutenant Harker has her own story to tell. Her small coastal village was once the source of a much sought ink, ruined by the arrival of a man intent on modernisation. Harker has been instrumental in the brutality of the coup but when she captures the rain heron she finds that brutality turned upon her. She and her hand-picked crew travel through often desolate countryside, taking their prize to a place known as the sanctuary where Harker comes to understand what she has done.
Hail filled the wind; ice glazed the streets. The gardens were scraped rough and gorgeous by frost
Arnott’s novel was written in response to the bush fires that raged through Australia earlier this year decimating its wildlife. It begins with the fable of the rain heron, a gorgeous mythological bird, set against the backdrop of a world blasted alternately by extreme heat and extreme cold. The writing throughout is beautiful. Regular readers will know that I’m not a fan of either magic realism or dystopian fiction but such is the power of Arnott’s storytelling and the beauty of his language that any reservations melt away. Arnott is careful not to lard his novel with details of either the coup or of catastrophic climate change, instead letting his story unfold with the mythological heron at its heart, a symbol of hope as Harker treads the road to redemption. I loved this novel which conveys its message beautifully while bringing us face to face with the consequences of our action and inaction.
Atlantic Books: London 9781838951269 288 pages Hardback