Writing about birds is never simply about birds. They can be harbingers of hope, the way witch hazel is a harbinger of spring (Emily Dickinson: “‘Hope’ is a thing with feathers / That perches in the soul”). Or, they can be delusions induced by trauma, like Edgar Allan Poe’s raven or Max Porter’s crow (whose title, Grief is a Thing With Feathers, is a nod to the Dickinson line). Or they can provide a mirror through which to contort memory and visions of oneself, as in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman.
What a bird can mean is at the heart of Rain Birds, Harriet McKnight’s debut novel. Rain Birds is a story about personal and global responsibilities, and examines the lives of two women: Arianna Brandt, a biologist and PhD candidate, concerned with reintroducing the threatened glossy black cockatoo in Murrungowar National Park in regional Victoria; and Pina Marinelli, whose husband Alan’s early onset of Alzheimer’s sees her grieve for a man who is still alive. Pina dismisses the notion of birds being markers of change. She describes the idea as an old wives’ tale. In contrast, Arianna has “grown up, knowing birds were more than what they appeared to be.”
McKnight avoids gratuitous passages of description, keeping her language dry and sterile. Narrative is focused on the actions of the characters, with personal reflections more commonly inspired by introspection than externalities. But Rain Birds deals with the Australian landscape as a lens to view Australia’s relationship to its past. McKnight describes Boney Point as sitting at the head “of a confluence of the Errinundra and Combienbar river”, but it has a history as a massacre site, where between forty to eighty of the Kurnai were killed in 1840. While much of the story takes place around Boney Point, the character’s ruminations on their own past and present exist on a plane occupied by regret, loss and grief. Perhaps to write about our relationship with nature means we look not just at the emotional landscape of the land, but its entire history.
Arianna is on a mission to distract herself from a childhood laden with mental health problems. While her past is not explicitly explained, McKnight illustrates how Arianna’s strained relationships with family members, and in particular an abusive father, negatively affects every part of her life, including her career. Her work colleague Tim finds her difficult to work with, sullen and withdrawn, and Arianna is resentful of his company, finding it uncomfortable to depend on another person: “she considered it best to assume that you only had yourself and your own skill to fall back on, that there would be no one to save you.”
In contrast, Pina is trying to save Alan from himself. To say that Pina does not deal well with Alan’s dementia is an understatement. She plays the role of the dutiful wife and caretaker, but Pina never wanted to ‘mother’ another person. Pina’s struggle with Alan is based on McKnight’s own grandmother’s struggle with dementia. In an article in the Guardian, McKnight details the pain of losing someone who is still alive: “Dementia is death by a thousand tiny deaths.” In an essay for Granta, Sinéad Gleeson considers the way memory functions as a map in the context of dementia. Without the map to constrain it, a patient’s mind unravels like a thread from a much-beloved sweater. With nothing holding it together, it loses form. This dissociation came about when McKnight’s grandmother failed to recognise family members, becoming aggressive and belligerent when she was known to be calm. In the novel, this is reflected in Alan’s behaviour towards Pina: he throws insults at her, accusing her of lying to his doctor, to “take him away and lock him up”. Pina calls it “arguing with his disease”. The only time she finds respite from her duty is when Alan notices the black cockatoos that gather around the bird feeders he built. His demeanour changes and he becomes noticeably calmer as he watches and listens to the birds. For Pina they become her saving grace; they are bringing him back.
Gleeson also notes the ‘abdication of the self’ that women enact when someone they care about suffers from debilitating illness: “the role of nourisher, this proxy parenthood, happens more consistently to women.” McKnight, too, depicts these women as unapologetic martyrs for their causes. Both are confrontational, but in both there exists a duality: they hide their own struggle with (genuine) concern for an externality. For Arianna this is her birds, and for Pina it is her husband. Both assume ownership of their burden, as “women had always borne things.”
The two stories run parallel until the black cockatoos desert their designated nesting zone. Arianna tracks down ‘her’ birds at Pina and Alan’s homestead. When Arianna asks Pina to take down the bird feeders, Pina refuses. The birds are the only thing that help Alan, which makes him focus on the world around him and return to a place where Pina and Alan can co-exist. But it begs the question: what is the price we should pay to protect a species? Driven by stress, Arianna begins to literally tear chunks out of her hair. She has inherited this from her mother, who pulled bits of her own hair out until she was bald. Arianna wants to make sacrifices for the natural world, and, after refusing to reconcile herself to Pina’s decision, she shaves her hair off.
A bushfire at the end of the novel ravages the homes of Boney Point residents and forces both women to make difficult decisions. McKnight’s focus on rebirth is significant, but she is more concerned with endings: the end of Pina and Alan’s relationship even before he fell to Alzheimer’s, the demise of Arianna’s ecological mission. Both mirror the looming prospect of losing our ecosystems.
Rain Birds urges readers to emotionally understand the natural world. Pina loses her husband in the end, but not to death, to a nursing home, forcing her to revive her own life, one that was previously tethered to Alan’s existence: “She knew what she was: in limbo, that’s what.” She has been so concerned with surviving the pain of her relationship that it is only once she is severed from Alan that rebirth as her own person becomes possible. At the end of the story, it is Pina who notices the two black cockatoos who have survived the fire, “huddled together on the thicker mid-branches. Feathers as bright as beetles’ shells,” while Arianna is left contemplating the effects of the fire on her black cockatoos. Crying, she visits her sister and newly-born niece in the hospital. She has no proof of the birds’ survival but holds on to hope.
Birds can function symbolically in fiction in various ways. They can tell us what human overpopulation does to the ecosystem, what habitat loss means for species, and why hope is so important for us. Birds remind us how cruel and indiscriminate nature can be. They are a living memory of their environment, as Pina and Arianna are of theirs. Let nature be, Rain Birds seems to say, and remember that, sometimes, nobody is to blame.
Marta Skrabacz is a writer and producer based in Melbourne.