The Rain Heron by Robbie Arnott
When soldiers arrive in the village, Ren knows it won’t be long before they discover her retreat. The wilderness harbours more than a disappointed mother: according to legend, a heron, both embodied bird and transparent rain, is roosting there.
Ren resists initially but, led by the calm authority of Lieutenant Harker, the military is well-practised in persuasion. Their violence is quiet, almost kindly, but it isn’t only Ren’s tranquillity that is destroyed in the process. The soldiers, and perhaps especially the female leader, are human too.
The point of view and setting shift to a girl and her aunt enduring the harsh winters of a southern coastal town. This isolated community survives by casting their nets on the sea, returning not with fish but with something more lucrative. They guard the secret of their methods carefully: when a stranger comes to town offering to industrialise production, they turn their backs.
In the third section, the baton passes to one of the soldiers, as the story meanders lyrically to a satisfying conclusion. I did find it jarring to abandon one thread for another, but that’s mostly testament to the immersive nature of the prose. Although often wary of magic realism, Tasmanian author Robbie Arnott’s beautifully brutal eco-fable about fragile people wreaking havoc on each other and on our fragile planet has to be one of my favourite reads of the year. Thanks to Atlantic Books for my advance proof copy.
Pine by Francine Toon
A couple of older girls, teenagers who think they’re grownups, are also there to support her. But Diane and Ann-Marie don’t realise the danger they are in when they delve into the mystery of Lauren’s missing mother Christine. Meanwhile, Lauren has found Christine’s tarot cards, and hopes they’ll help her understand an increasingly confusing world. What’s the meaning of these new stone circles that are cropping up? Why won’t her father talk about the strange young woman in a dressing gown whom he brought back to their house one night, yet in the morning had gone?
In the words of the publisher Doubleday, to whom thanks for my review copy, Francine Toon’s debut novel captures the wilderness of rural childhood and the intensity of small-town claustrophobia … [uniting] the chill of the modern gothic with the pulse of a thriller. The depiction of childhood neglect was the scariest part for me, wondering how much it sums up some kids’ lockdown life.