Limberlost by Robbie Arnott: ‘The things you don’t know’

Cover image for Limberlost by Robbie ArnottI was delighted when Robbie Arnott’s new novel popped up in my Twitter feed. I’d been a huge fan of his debut, Flames, at first reluctant given it’s magic realism thread but won over by his beautiful writing, then again by The Rain Heron. A coming-of-age story set in 1940s Tasmania with the Second World War a distant hum, Limberlost follows fifteen-year-old Ned whose life will be marked by a shattered dream.

He knew he had worth. Knew he had qualities that were of value… …But he longed to be more surefooted, for his adult self to be more resolved. To be a person who was complete.

Much diminished by the departure of his older sons, remembering his own war not so long ago, Ned’s father moves around the family orchard as if in a dream. Ned spends his time hunting rabbits, saving his earnings in the hopes of buying a boat, a secret hugged closely to his chest kept even from his best friend. When his sister comes home, distant and preoccupied, he longs for her approbation, just as he does for his father’s, setting a trap for the creature intent on stealing her chickens. The beautiful pelt of the quoll he catches would boost his boat fund nicely but the animal has injured itself badly. Ned is appalled at the damage done, rescuing the raging animal and keeping it hidden in an outbuilding, another secret. Maggie hardly notices the saving of the chickens, furious at the neglect of her mare in her absence. Ned does the best he can to make amends, unnoticed and unthanked by Maggie. Throughout the summer, Ned continues to save, fulfilling his dream only to have it shattered. By the time school begins again, the war is at an end, and Ned has begun to grow into the man he will later become.

It leaped onto the trunk and began climbing, fast and assured, laddering up the bark with natural authority. The spots on its pelt shone against the wood like a patterned moth, a living quilt.

This understated, poignant novel is much more straightforward than Arnott’s previous books with none of the magic realism that characterised them both. Themes of nature and our destructive interference, masculinity, colonialism, love and war are all explored with the lightest of touches, and the writing is beautiful, quietly lyrical descriptions of the natural world singing off the page. Ned’s character is drawn with a perceptive compassion, his future life as a husband and father woven through his summer as a fifteen-year-old in occasional flashes forward. He’s a lost boy without his brothers, longing for the approval of a father and sister whose thoughts are often far away from home, caught up in his own pre-occupations and unware of the troubles that beset the adults I loved both Arnott’s previous novels but Limberlost feels more assured, the work of a novelist whose writing continues to mature in a way that many never achieve. Very much looking forward to his fourth.

Atlantic Books: London 9781838956806 240 pages Hardback

19 thoughts on “Limberlost by Robbie Arnott: ‘The things you don’t know’”

  1. I started this last month but have got derailed with Novellas in November planning, but this will be the first book I read next month! Delighted to hear you enjoyed it, I adored Flames.

  2. This sounds interesting–your review made it sound so compelling. I saw the title and thought immediately of the Indiana classic Girl of the Limberlost (which I loved) by Gene Stratton Porter.

  3. Sounds intriguing but not sure I could cope with the animal injury even if it survives. However the book has encouraged me to google quolls, an animal I’d never heard of before – aren’t they both odd and adorable? As if they’ve severely lost a paintballing competition… 😉

    1. They are, indeed, although I suspect those teeth cancel out some of the cuteness. Have to admit I skimmed the injury paragraph but Ned learns a lesson from it and the quoll makes a good recovery.

  4. This sounds such a poignant tale. I’ve not read this author at all but I’ll look out for him – I don’t mind magic realism! Although I must admit to being pleased to hear he dispensed with it here.

  5. I’m a big fan of Arnott’s writing too. This might be the book that he starts winning some of those major awards he keeps getting longlisted & shortlisted for.
    PS Love the UK jacket treatment too.

  6. Pingback: Book Review: Limberlost (2022) by Robbie Arnott #AusReadingMonth2023 – Literary Potpourri

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