McKnight, Harriet. Rain Birds. Carlton, Victoria: Black Inc. Books, 2017. RRP: $29.99. 288pp. ISBN: 9781863959827
There are fewer things that give that heartache tug of emotional recognition than observing the slow, painful demise of a once-strong relationship. Writer Harriet McKnight draws on that sensation in her novel, Rain Birds, inviting the reader to observe the disintegration of one woman’s marriage and another’s sense of self.
In Rain Birds, parallel narratives focus on two women struggling to navigate their lives while being hindered and restricted by the men in their lives—past and present. At first glance it may not seem like a novel with feminism at its core, but the dominance of the female protagonists and their narratives places women firmly at the centre of the book’s focus.
Pina Martelli’s husband, Alan, suffers from Alzheimer’s Disease. Alan’s slow decline is ripping their marriage apart. Far from the strong, capable man he once was, now he’s child-like and confronting—a metaphor for their marriage if ever there was one, as the pair move further from known intimacy and towards being platonic strangers. Pina’s life unravels along with her marriage as the novel progresses, as everything gets increasingly uncertain and unstable in the wake of Alan’s mental disintegration.
Running in parallel to Pina’s narrative is that of conservation ecologist Arianna Brandt, a driven, workaholic academic who is determined to reintroduce the endangered glossy black cockatoo to the Murrungowar National Park. She throws herself into her work at the expense of everything else, her past relationships having long ago disconnected her from any kind of desire for human contact. Memories of her violent father linger in her mind, and the longer she spends in the wilderness the more frantic and separated from social constructs she becomes. She is the wild woman, unable to conform to societal expectations, with the wilderness a symbol of her increasing descent into an almost-madness.
These characters are juxtaposed throughout the book, with one existing primarily in the domestic sphere and the other in the wild openness of the bush. McKnight weaves the two stories together, using parallel representations of familiar situations to show the similarities between them. Each woman is present at the supermarket, the protests, the wilderness; they glimpse each other and occasionally cross paths, but their lives twist away onto separate paths.
Both are restricted by the men in their lives, both are driven and determined to prove themselves—Arianna through her work, Pina in proving that she is still capable of caring for Alan without help from anyone else. Arianna is described by a colleague as ‘A perpetually dissatisfied person’ (94); her past influencing her life to such an extent that she fails to build relationships and lives a quiet, enclosed life.
Pina is Arianna’s opposite, gentle and nurturing, and there’s a real sense that she’s a strong, independent, determined woman with warm, open connections with the people around her. However, both are isolated, mentally and physically, from the world around them. Pina is trapped in her marital home and her marriage, while Arianna is physically isolated in the parklands and also within her own mind.
The most stunning thing about this book is the way McKnight writes the demise of Alan and Pina’s relationship. The tensions and trials that Pina faces are written like taut strings, snapping one by one as Alan’s actions put increased strain on the couple. One of the most harrowing scenes in the book is where Pina leaves Alan in the shower at his insistence that he can wash himself. When she returns;
‘Then she noticed what he was doing. His erection. It was sticking up in the air between his awkwardly bent legs. His hands were dancing around it, brushing himself with feathery movements. Not the purposeful and confident strokes she’d seen before. Before.’ (108)
It’s at that point—in catching her husband not knowing how to masturbate—that she realises that although ‘A man has needs’ (108), his no longer involve her. Her realisation comes like a punch to the stomach;
‘This was the clearest indication she’d had so far: he was no longer her husband.’ (109)
McKnight draws on the reader’s connection to Pina to enable them to feel the shock and hurt, that kick in the gut, that she does. The realisation of what Alan is doing, his incompetence and the subtle disgust of Pina’s reaction are perfect examples of McKnight’s ability to get right to the heart of human emotions. We’re watching a wife watch her husband fail to masturbate, and it’s heartbreaking.
Pina’s story is the most engaging, perhaps because Arianna is written in a way that’s intended to make her unlikable, so sympathising with her as she reveals her father’s violent outbursts is difficult. But the soft rage of Pina and her crumbling life is just enough to draw you in.
Rain Birds is a riveting, smart work of fiction that will reverberate in your brain and your heart for a long while after you’ve finished the last page.
Harriet McKnight is a writer and editor whose work has been shortlisted for the 2014 Overland VU Short Story Prize, the 2015 ABR Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize, and the 2016 Overland Neilma Sidney Short Story Prize. She is Managing Editor of The Canary Press. Rain Birds is her debut novel.
Jen is a writer and journalist currently based in Perth. She lived and worked in Edinburgh, Scotland for ten years and has written for a number of UK newspapers and magazines including The List, The Guardian and The Scotsman. She is currently the Arts and Events Editor of scoopevents.com.au