Something, or someone, is chasing Jake Whyte, hounding her, haunting her. When we meet her she’s living on a remote farm on an unnamed UK island, her only company a dog named Dog and a herd of sheep. A loner, her only interaction with the locals is gained at the shop or with the one neighbour she speaks to, an older man named Don. She is also an outsider, having come from the equally remote Australian north (Darwin, Port Hedland, Marble Bar, and before that Queensland).
Told in first person, the story opens with the horrible death of one of her sheep:
Another sheep, mangled and bled out, her innards not yet crusting and the vapours rising from her like a steamed pudding. Crows, their beaks shining, strutting and rasping, and when I waved my stick they flew into the trees and watched, flaring out their wings, singing, if you could call it that. I shoved my boot into Dog’s face to stop him from taking a string of her away with him as a souvenir, and he kept close by my side as I wheeled the carcass out of the field and down into the woolshed.
I love the way Wyld uses the bird call/singing motif throughout the story. More on that later, but note the lovely use of the word ‘wheeled’ here, which is usually used in describing a bird’s flight, how Wyld attaches it to Jake instead, how birds are almost a part of her. This is important because while the sheep are being picked off by some creature or person unknown, Jake is fleeing from something else too, some unspeakable event in her past that has scarred her both physically and mentally.
Wyld grew up in rural New South Wales but has spent her adult life in the UK and identifies as British. Earlier this year she was part of the fourth Granta list of 20 Best British Writers under 40. She won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize for her fabulous debut After the fire a still small voice, which I read recently (not reviewed here). After the fire used a split narrative to good effect in a story that focussed on successive generations of men from the same Australian family, two of whom had been scarred by the horrors of war. There was a palpable sense of loss and pain in that work, and they are again in evidence here, in spades, along with another split narrative, albeit one with a different flavour. (There is another, more subtle link between the two books, but to tell would spoil things for you!)
All the birds, singing flits back and forth, chapter by chapter, between the present in the UK and Jake’s troubled past in Australia. What’s unique about the chapters set in Australia is that they are presented in reverse chronological order. The book’s second chapter is Jake as a shearer on a remote station in the Kimberly region of north-west Australia, and ends with her wanting to escape, fearing that whatever is chasing her has found her. Subsequent Australian chapters travel back toward adolescence, with horrors mounting toward the unspeakable event from which she is running. The structure is beautifully conceived and impressively executed.
Meanwhile, back in the present, another loner enters Jake’s life. He is Lloyd, who is travelling to the four corners of the UK in order to distribute the ashes of someone or something that was dear to him. Of course, Jake wants to get rid of him, but events conspire to prevent this. Together they are forced to confront both present and past.
When you take on a structure like this you need to be in full control and Wyld is precisely that. Her prose is precise; nothing is wasted. The way she works together details of past and present, all the subtle touch-points, is marvellous. One example is the way Jake always picks out the birds she sees, together with their calls (or silences); they are present from the opening paragraph; and these calls gradually build into the event in her past that caused them all the sing together.
There’s some lovely wordplay; at one point Jake hears someone say ‘carry-on’, but although she hears it correctly, she instantly thinks of ‘carrion’. It’s not wordplay for the sake of it—it serves to reinforce the bird motif and the theme of death/loss all in one go. It’s wonderful writing, beautiful ‘craft’.
Wyld knows how to write pain and loss. She also knows her characters intimately. Their voices are utterly believable, from the rough and ready Aussie shearers, the terrifying old Otto, all the way through to the well-educated but somewhat uncertain Lloyd. Jake’s voice is finely honed; it (almost imperceptibly) changes from adult to teenager the further back in time we travel.
The troubled relationship Jake has with her family is deftly constructed and provides a further unsettling tone. We wonder throughout why her sister Iris can’t abide Jake, and why Jake hasn’t called home in so long she’s unaware of her father’s death in an unspecified ‘accident’ at his place of work. The climax packs a real punch, but it’s deepened when you finish and think back on some of these minor things, which are thrown into a new light.
Wyld captures the landscapes beautifully, and smells both good and bad are a real feature of her writing. The difference between the UK’s cold, bleak hills to baking hot north-west Australia with all its flies and deadly animals is stark:
Wet wool and rain-dampened sheep shit were aliens to the dust-dry smell of the carpet sheep in their wide red spaces back home. The land [in the UK]… seemed to be watching me, feeling my foreignness in it, holding its breath…
The vast difference highlights the length to which Jake has gone to outrun the past. And I love the way Wyld uses Jake’s outsider status to further show her sense of unease about the thing that might be watching her, preying on her sheep.
And what about the birds? I love birds—and I love the way Wyld uses them, (and by them I mean: crows, blackbirds, currawongs, ‘white’ galahs, butcher birds, magpies, seagulls, a barn owl, merlin, curlew, whistler, starlings and sparrows!). As I write this muse dusk is flaring in Sydney on a perfectly blue spring day where the temperature nudged 29° C; the sun is dipping into the Blue Mountains in a showy molten mass, and the magpies are singing to each other. (Soon the kookaburras will start up.)
In Wyld’s novel, the birds feature in ways that highlight the mood of the scene. There are the crows after carrion in the disturbing open, Jake and her one-time boyfriend gabbling like magpies in a scene of solidarity and warmth, butcher birds calling as a phone line goes dead, a drilling nightjar causing nightmares, an unknown bird ‘cry[ing] in the night … like a fire horn’ when Jake feels trapped, and a barn owl flying over the lonely UK farm: ‘break[ing] up the dawn, a lone swimmer in an empty sea’. At other times there are no birds singing at all, replaced instead by harrowing dead birds, like a kookaburra, honeyeater and bowerbird. (And yep, my kookaburras here are calling out now!) Each of Wyld’s birds plays a part, and I love the way she evokes human words and thoughts in some of their calls, further underscoring their relationship with Jake. It’s another highlight.
All that’s left for me to say, in a week where the Man Booker announced it’s going global in 2014 (sigh), All the birds, singing is a contender for next year’s prize no matter what it comes up against. Granta had it right. Get thee to a bookstore and buy it!
All the birds, singing by Evie Wyld
Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka purchased!)