Rain Birds by Harriet McKnight
Pina and Alan have lived in Boney Point, a town in rural East Gippsland, for decades. When Alan develops early-onset dementia, the fiercely independent Pina struggles to give up her life to care for the husband she barely recognises anymore. As Alan’s illness approaches crisis point, a flock of rare glossy black cockatoos make their home in the wilderness behind Pina and Alan’s land. Alan is mesmerised by the birds, and Pina becomes convinced they are somehow significant to his rapidly changing identity.
Nearby, researcher Arianna is also watching the cockatoos. She has bred these birds in captivity, and is both professionally and personally invested in their successful repopulation of the area. When they leave the designated nesting zone she has spent months preparing, Arianna’s anxiety spins out of control. She tracks the birds obsessively, eventually discovering they have moved to Pina’s and Alan’s land. Arianna and Pina clash; Arianna insists Pina shoo the cockatoos away, but Pina can’t see the sense in Arianna’s refusal to let nature be. As the tension between the two women simmers, summer grows fiercer, the bush dries out, and hot winds whip through Boney Point.
Writing landscape is something Australian authors famously do well. In her debut novel, Rain Birds, Harriet McKnight has continued in this tradition. While capturing rural Victoria’s beauty, she intertwines its hostility with the development of her characters and narrative. This is one of the reasons I loved this book. There is always something dangerous just under the surface, and whether it’s fire, ostracisation from other people, violence, or mental anguish, McKnight treats it with the same touch. Rain Birds is the kind of novel you will feel keenly, and think about for weeks after you’ve finished reading. McKnight is a writer to watch.