Books

Limberlost review: What nature can teach a boy about a man

Robbie Arnott's Limberlost is a coming-of-age tale that veers between violence and tenderness

Limberlost by Robbie Arnott

Limberlost by Robbie Arnott is out now (Atlantic Books, £14.99)

Limberlost begins with a whale, not a marlin: an almost-mythical beast at the mouth of a Tasmanian river, troubling the waves with its fluked tail. But Robbie Arnott’s third novel carries echoes of Ernest Hemingway’s masterpiece. As its hero pits himself against nature to prove himself to older men – his father and his absent brothers – it could be read as a sort of The Young Man and the Sea: a beautiful, pared-back exploration of masculinity, and the sustaining nature of dreams.

Ned West is a motherless boy who lives on an orchard – the Limberlost of the title – with his father William. Once strong and cheerful, William is worn out with anxiety for his older sons, Bill and Toby, who are off at war. Ned is too young to enlist, and consumed by a sense of his own inadequacy, which he stokes by dwelling on exaggerated memories of his brothers’ prowess and feats of endurance.

To boost his self-esteem, he takes up rabbit hunting, shooting and then skinning them by the dozen. Their pelts will make slouch hats for the soldiers; but his real motivation for the slaughter is to make money to buy a boat. He wants the boat for its own sake, but also as a means to demonstrate his physical competence and to recreate the night, many years before, when his father had taken all three of his sons down-river, and they had waited under a starlit sky for the leviathan to explode out of the water.

Limberlost is a sensory roller coaster. Arnott’s writing is unadorned, but thrillingly visceral. Whether Ned is in an abalone-rich reef, camping among the “paperbarks and black gums and the ubiquitous coastal she-oaks” or watching apples being ripped from their boughs by a storm, the reader is encouraged to see, hear, inhale the scene; to experience first-hand Ned’s engagement with his environment. This peaks in an exhilarating passage where he is dazzled by the scent of his Huon pine dinghy. “The odours of trees belonged to their leaves and flowers; he’d assumed timber would be mute,” Arnott writes. “He wondered at his wrongness, as the wood spice filled his lungs, sank into his blood. The sight and smell. He felt tricked and drunk. He hadn’t realised the world could do things like this to him.”

The joy of Limberlost, beyond the writing, is that, in Arnott’s rendering, nature is not always something to be wondered at, then subdued. The book is flecked with violence and rot, but there is much tenderness, too. When Ned inadvertently captures a quoll, he is torn between the urge to torment and the urge to nurture. The latter wins out, as he discovers his own strength lies in his capacity to care; and that there are many different ways to be a man.

Limberlost by Robbie Arnott

Limberlost by Robbie Arnott is out now. You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
Question 7 by Richard Flanagan review – this literary quest is a transformative experience
Question 7 by Richard Flanagan
Books

Question 7 by Richard Flanagan review – this literary quest is a transformative experience

The Great White Bard by Farah Karim-Cooper review – a new way of seeing Shakespeare
The Great White Bard by Farah Karim-Cooper
Books

The Great White Bard by Farah Karim-Cooper review – a new way of seeing Shakespeare

Top 5 books on boxing, chosen by commentator Andy Clarke
Books

Top 5 books on boxing, chosen by commentator Andy Clarke

Parasol Against the Axe by Helen Oyeyemi review – electrifying, experimental writing
Books

Parasol Against the Axe by Helen Oyeyemi review – electrifying, experimental writing

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know