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Off The Shelf - June

Welcome to my column where each month I’ll take a book from the shelf to share.

By Kate Rendell

Released late last year, Rain Birds is a novel that has been on my radar for a while now. When it recently rose to the top of my stack of books waiting to be read, I surprised myself by devouring it in one sitting.

I have since learnt Harriet McKnight lives in Darwin and to know we have a writer of such calibre in our midst is a lovely realisation. 

Beautiful almost feels too glib a word for prose of this quality – but McKnight’s debut novel Rain Birds is beautiful. It is also heart wrenching. 

Set among the bush in Boney Point, East Gippsland, Victoria, Rain Birds tells the parallel stories of Arianna, a dedicated biologist leading a Black Cockatoo release program, and Pina, a Boney Point local of 30 years.

It is a raw and moving portrayal of two women and their struggle to maintain control over their changing lives. 

Particularly convincing is McKnight’s depiction of Pina, rendered carer and stranger to her husband who has early onset Alzheimer’s. You keenly feel Pina’s frustration and grief throughout.

Similarly Arianna’s struggle with impulse control disorder is written in such a way that is it both empathetic and deeply informative.

Through the personal stories of these women and the cast of characters in Boney Point, McKnight points to broader questions of Indigenous sovereignty, climate change and the extinction of species.

But she does not press these themes. Rather, small details allow her to reveal a vivid place that you come to care deeply about.

Rain Birds is propelled by a building sense of trepidation and suspense. Yet when this climax is realised, McKnight refuses neat or romantic resolutions. Rather, one is left with a strong sense of women’s strength and resilience in the face of the sometimes-heartbreaking realities of life:

"Once she would have said all the usual things: it will be ok and don’t worry too much. But she knew now that the people you loved weren’t always ok, that things didn’t always get better."

Kate Rendell works as a Communications Manager in the arts. She is also a freelance writer and researcher. First and foremost though she is a reader.

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