- The Rain Heron, by Robbie Arnott. Text. $29.99.
Tasmania is increasingly the location of novels of speculation ranging from James Bradley's Ghost Species to Heather Rose's Bruny.
Tasmania is not explicitly mentioned in Launceston author Robbie Arnott's second novel, The Rain Heron, but it is clearly the inspiration for the unnamed country in which a military coup has taken place.
Arnott's debut novel, Flames, won the Margaret Scott Prize in the Tasmanian Premier's Literary Prizes, was longlisted for the Miles Franklin and shortlisted for several state fiction awards. The Rain Heron confirms his place as one of Australia's leading young novelists.
He has said of the novel, "I wanted to write a book where characters who felt completely real, even if they were in an imaginary country, had their lives intertwined with a myth or a fable".
Five years ago, Ren escaped the military coup and now lives a solitary, frugal life on a mountain, trapping animals and fish and trading skins.
As a child, she saw the allegedly mythical rain heron, "with feathers of mist and wings of rain", which can bring rain to lands devastated by climate change.
Arnott provides the backstory to the rain heron in the first chapter. Arnott says he wanted to create "a creature that embodied both the beauty and savagery of nature. I wanted it to be captivating and astonishing, but also harsh and unforgiving."
Life, which is certainly harsh and unforgiving for Ren, becomes even worse when soldiers, led by the ruthless Lieutenant Zoe Harker, "a cold revelation in camouflage", arrive and torture Ren to find out the location of the rain heron, which the military junta wishes to capture for its powers.
Harker's backstory, told in the second segment of the book, also plays out against the harshness of society and nature, in this case the sea.
Harker slowly emerges as the powerful, yet troubled, main character of the book. Her interaction with Ren is set against the story of the fate of the rain heron.
Both Harker and Ren suffer significant physical injuries and psychological trauma but, ultimately, Arnott brings closure in a form of redemption, mirroring, as Arnott says, "the violence we commit against each other and the violence we commit against nature".
Contemporary issues resonate strongly in The Rain Heron, such as increasing nationalism and "the quiet carnage" of the natural world.
As myths collide with reality, Arnott's imaginative dark novel ends with a sobering uplift, reaffirming that ultimately relationships and kindness matter.