Review: Rain Birds by Harriet McKnight

Tuesday, February 13, 2018
Meg Crawford

Legend has it that rain is on the way when black cockatoos are in flight. However, in Harriet McKnight’s debut novel, ‘Rain Birds’, the cockies don’t so much signify rain as they do an almighty shit storm.

Without being maudlin, ‘Rain Birds’ hits all of the feels. The central storylines revolve around recent retiree Pina Marinelli and conservation biologist Arianna Brandt, both of whom are struggling to hold it together in the wake of trauma. In Pina’s case, it’s the deterioration of her husband, Alan, that’s chewing her up. The couple have enjoyed a vibrant, loving marriage, but Alan is in the grips of early-onset Alzheimer’s. To add insult to injury, not only is he subject to rapid physical and mental decline, he’s become uncharacteristically mean and aggressive. While Pina is aware it’s symptomatic of the disease, it’s difficult not to take it personally when he calls her a ‘slag’ and a ‘wog’.

Once ‘a man who walked out of the darkness like a revelation, who took up all the space in a room’, Alan is no longer there, which relegates Pina to the role of carer instead of wife. McKnight doesn’t shy away from an honest assessment of the situation: Pina loves her husband, but it’s frustrating, and she’s grieving the loss of their life together. Late in the piece, Alan confuses Pina with his mum, and Pina reflects, with an unflinching eye, ‘It was as if there was nothing left in his mind except dust and vapours’. Both are suffering the indignities of a cruel and unfair disease. Emotionally and practically taxed, Pina is isolated, despite having a close relationship with best mate Lil.

Arianna is just as solitary. Having been brought up with a violent dad, she’s plagued by persistent and traumatic memories. Following the recent death of her mum and the failure of a prior conservation project, Arianna is already on her last nerve by the time she sets up camp in Murrungowar National Park. For company she has knockabout colleague (and everyone’s mate) Tim, whose friendliness with the locals and penchant for a post-work piss up strike Arianna as both confusing and an affront. Also, he’s a bit of a dick – he regales her with ghost stories at inappropriate times; for instance, while she’s in the dark, up a tree about to shove her hand into a nesting box. It just seems cruel given the degree to which she’s already haunted. Then there’s the time he fails to back her when, within earshot, a chauvinistic colleague queries the role of women in the field. Arianna might be rigid and prickly, but she’s sharp and dedicated beyond measure to the reintroduction (and salvation) of otherwise dwindling flocks of glossy black cockatoos to Gippsland. As Arianna notes, she’d be hailed as ‘tenacious’ if she was a bloke.

While Pina and Alan are long-time Boney Point locals, Arianna and Tim are in town for the project courtesy of Sol Petroleum, whose activity in the National Park demands an environmental offset. While the oil company’s presence is controversial, the conservation project attracts interest from universities, local twitchers, and, unexpectedly, Alan. Indeed, Pina, Arianna and Alan first cross paths at the release of hand-reared mating pairs of the black cockatoos.

In the subsequent weeks, Arianna becomes increasingly anxious, at times literally pulling her hair out (Trichotillomania is a disorder she’s probably inherited from her mum). First, a mating pair turn up dead for no apparent reason, and then the remainder of the flock abandon their designated safe nesting area, taking up residence in the casuarina grove on the edge of Alan and Pina’s property. It’s a blessing for Pina, because Alan’s fascination with the flock lends her hope that some part of the man she knew remains, but it’s disastrous for Arianna.             

Against a backdrop of tension – racism, dry weather, Sol Petroleum’s presence, Alan’s disappearance into Alzheimer’s, Arianna’s failing project and her declining mental health and Pina’s refusal to discourage the cockatoos – the story is pushed into tinder-box territory.    

Pina and Ariana are chalk and cheese, but there are parallels in their lives. For a start, both are in stasis. Pina isn’t yet ready to make the call about residential care, and Arianna is trapped by memories of her father's abuse. They are also both isolated, alienated from their families (albeit by choice) and suffering. 

While a reflection of memory, capacity, love, loss, trauma and personhood, ‘Rain Birds’ is also a love letter to naturalists. If you’ve spent any time outdoors, you’ll recognise that McKnight’s descriptions of nature are perfect. For instance, when she describes ‘the fronds of the trees hissing softly in the breeze,’ there’s instant recognition of leafy susurration. In the end, it’s nature that forces Pina and Arianna’s hands. It turns out that, although devastating, fire can be just as cleansing as rain. 

'Rain Birds' by Harriet McKnight, published by Black Inc.

About Meg Crawford

Meg Crawford is a word nerd and rockabilly who loves 'Ghostbusters' too much. After 15 years as an IR lawyer, Meg decided that she couldn’t wear a suit for another day and swapped the courtroom for a pen. Since then, she’s been the Lifestyle Editor at 'Time Out', and now freelances for lifestyle and industry publications.