Har­riet McKnight Rain Birds

The Saturday Paper - - Books -

Har­riet McKnight’s de­but novel is a rather bleak and dispir­it­ing por­trait of two women on the verge of ner­vous break­downs, and of a world on the verge of en­vi­ron­men­tal catas­tro­phe.

Pina Marinelli is a mid­dle-aged woman whose hus­band has early on­set Alzheimer’s. The cou­ple still live to­gether on a prop­erty in Vic­to­ria’s East Gipp­s­land, but Alan no longer recog­nises Pina. In­deed, he no longer recog­nises him­self. Alan’s rages and out­bursts of vi­o­lence are be­com­ing more fre­quent, and Pina now spends her days wran­gling with a hos­tile stranger. Pro­foundly un­happy, she veers from re­sent­ment to self-pity and back again. Some­thing must be done but she can’t yet bring her­self to do it.

Then there is Ari­anna Brandt, a young sci­en­tist who runs a cap­tive breed­ing pro­gram for glossy black-cock­a­toos. The cock­ies have been re­leased into the wild, and Ari­anna is in the field mon­i­tor­ing their progress. But all is not well. Ari­anna is tor­mented by mem­o­ries of her abu­sive fa­ther. Her men­tal health bat­tles are the sub­ject of fac­ulty gos­sip. Her re­search part­ner con­stantly nig­gles and nee­dles her with sex­ist jibes. And to cap it all off, the bloody birds won’t stay put. In­stead of us­ing her nest­ing boxes, they have made a bee­line for a stand of ca­suar­i­nas at the back of Pina’s place, where all is for­saken like a mem­ory lost. This com­bi­na­tion of stress fac­tors trig­gers an im­pulse con­trol dis­or­der that has poor deso­late Ari­anna lit­er­ally tear­ing her hair out by the hand­ful.

McKnight con­fronts the reader with the repet­i­tive pat­terns of de­struc­tive think­ing with which her two hero­ines tor­ture them­selves. Her spare and sub­dued nar­ra­tion is shot through with ag­gres­sive frag­ments of thought, ital­i­cised in­ter­jec­tions of out­rage and hor­ror, which lodge in the story like shrap­nel.

It all cul­mi­nates in a great Aus­tralian bush­fire, which McKnight as­so­ciates with global warm­ing and a nearby oil drilling oper­a­tion. This leads to a reck­on­ing every­one had hoped to put off in­def­i­nitely. It doesn’t make for a very orig­i­nal res­o­lu­tion of the pres­sures and ten­sions at work in Rain Birds, but the hec­tic scenes of flight in the face of the on­rush­ing fire do at least thrill with a colour and ex­cite­ment miss­ing else­where.

There’s plenty to ad­mire here – an au­then­tic re­al­ism and a pre­cise and del­i­cate re­straint in the land­scape de­scrip­tions – but the end­ing, which ef­fects no deeper change or trans­for­ma­tion, seems a bit ar­bi­trary. JR

Black Inc, 288pp, $29.99

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