Australian writer, Harriet McKnight’s debut novel, Rain Birds is set in rural Australia, on the edge of the wild and beautiful Murrungowar National Park. McKnight has a wonderful ability to capture the natural world in her writing and I particularly enjoyed the way this novel interweaves the personal experience of how dementia impacts a couple’s relationship, with themes of global and environmental responsibility. It’s pretty obvious from the outset that McKnight knows and understands the world she is writing about.
Alan and Pina have spent thirty years living together in isolated Boney Point, when Alan begins to develop early-onset Alzheimer’s. Pina feels as if she’s losing contact with her partner as he starts to forget things, lose his language capability and disappear into his own head. Then the arrival of a flock of rare, black cockatoos offers them a means of connecting, both to each other and the moment they’re currently living through. Conservation biologist, Arianna, is also obsessed with the black cockatoos. She’s trying to encourage them back to their natural breeding site before the flock dies out. Pina wants the birds to stay in her backyard where Alan can get the comfort and benefit of seeing them every day. Both women bring their own agenda to the issue of the cockatoos. Neither is being deliberately selfish but there doesn’t seem to be an easy solution to their problem. Either Alan will suffer or the birds will ultimately be put at risk. McKnight uses this small, and very localised dilemma, to highlight much bigger environmental issues.
Rain Birds is essentially Pina’s story. She’s struggling to come to terms with Alan’s Alzheimer’s, (“I have to stop thinking of him as if he’s already dead,”) and fixates on the black cockatoos as a means of preserving some degree of connection with him. As the novel progresses, she becomes more and more irrational about the birds, losing perspective as she tries to hold on to the one aspect of her life with Alan which she can actually control.
The novel includes some incredibly honest and very recognisable insights into what it’s like to live with a partner who’s developed Dementia,
“How she followed him around in circles, shutting drawers, finding his jacket in with the crockery, the milk left under the sink with the cleaning stuff, directing him to the bathroom when he couldn’t find it, the tantrums, the anger, the forgetting, always the forgetting. The way it could all turn a woman slowly insane.”
McKnight effectively uses the cockatoo situation as an extended metaphor for all Pina’s frustrations and disappointment. In the specific and personal she finds grounds to explore big universal themes of anger, control and loss. Rain Bird’s a wonderful novel, beautifully written and full of rich descriptions of the natural world. It’s one of the first accounts of Dementia and environmental issues I’ve come across. I sincerely hope to read more.
Rain Birds was published by Black Inc in 2017