Reviewed by Wendy Tucker
This is the third novel from the Tasmanian Wunderkind, Robbie Arnott. Some readers may have been disappointed as Limberlost seems to be a departure from the previous highly imaginative, magic realism novel Flames, where people burst into flame. Also, a departure from the prize-winning The Rain Heron where a bird made of rain may save a dystopian world. I loved both these amazing novels – although they are far from what I usually read, I absolutely believed in them.
Limberlost did not disappoint. It is realistic, perhaps a coming-of-age novel, but so much more. There is magic in the lyrical writing and in the inner voices of the characters. Nature, the forest, the river and the animals are non-human characters, in both their benign beauty and their terror and their revenge. The relationship between the human and the non-human in this novel is what Arnott does so well.
Limberlost may seem at first a quite common story, Ned comes of age living on a Tasmanian apple orchard and we follow him, dipping in and out of decades from adolescence to old age. In Arnott’s hands the ordinary becomes the extraordinarily beautiful.
Arnott explores the masculinity of mid-century Australia. Ned’s widowed father is sad, silent and damaged from WW1 and unable to express or share his anguish at having his two older sons now serving in WW2. We meet Ned at fifteen, during the long summer holidays, helping his father in the orchard and shooting rabbits in order to save money for a boat to sail on his beloved river. Ned struggles to ‘… convert experience into meaningful language’. One day Ned accidentally traps a quoll. It is both beautiful and terrible. The dotted pattern of its thick coat is wonderfully designed yet its sharp gnashing teeth and fierce growl are dangerous. Its pelt would bring money and Ned’s dream of a boat closer. Ned’s decision is pivotal. He will secretly save the quoll, nurse its damaged leg back to health and release it. A dangerous and time-consuming secret.
We follow Ned, a sensitive, inarticulate character through the decades of his life, his struggles and victories, marriage and daughters, but always the land and the river.
Limberlost is rooted in the Tasmanian landscape. The landscape is perhaps the main character. Arnott beautifully captures the sounds, the smells, the heat and the cold. Ned introduces us to the eucalypts ‘… leaking their summer oils, shimmering the air, thickening the light’, until later, ‘… the absence of certain forests that once crawled over the low mountain’.
A magical non-magic novel of delight, hurt, love and nature.