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Posts Tagged ‘All the Birds Singing’

SWF LogoThe theme of this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival is ‘how to live’, and this question came up in an unexpected way in Evie Wyld’s conversation with Clementine Ford about All the Birds, Singing (my review here), winner of the 2014 Miles Franklin Award. It is the story of Jake, who lives on an island off the coast of the UK. Jake has a herd of sheep and something (or someone), some monster, is eviscerating her flock. It’s a powerful book, and I admired the craft Wyld displays throughout, from the opening scene of another dead sheep right through to the gripping and wonderful final pages.

The structure of the novel is a split narrative, with one arc of chapters moving forward while the other arc moves backward to a cataclysmic event in Jake’s childhood. Wyld was asked how she devised this structure. She said she works in a ‘messy way’, and didn’t plan the structure from the start. Rather, she wrote about 60,000 words, looked at what she had, and, in an organic process, rearranged things as the idea for the structure took hold. It was the best form to tell the story she had. In this way, form meets and matches the needs of the story.

For her, writing is about what you decide to leave out, (which has been on my mind after my recent reading of Favel Parrett’s When the Night Comes), and also what the reader brings to the table. She likes writing ‘echoes’ that the reader doesn’t pick up right away. She said she receives some rather pointed emails from readers asking for exact clarification of the ending of the novel, but even with these emails, which she quite welcomes, she is of a mind to trust the reader to complete the story in their own mind. As for her, there are some days she thinks ‘X’ happens at the end, while other days she sees something else. For her, the best monster or ghost stories are the ones in which you don’t find out the absolute full story about the monster. Not surprisingly, she is a ‘big fan of open endings’, preferring a story to trail after you when you’ve finished it, leaving you with that after-taste you can’t shake.

Ford raised the topic of the misogyny in the book, with the ‘suffocation of being a woman’ captured well. Wyld said she is quite angry about the objectification of young girls, their sexualisation, and the ‘apologetic’ female experience. However, the cruel men in the story were not born monsters, they were damaged at some point and became monsters. Of course, sometimes this damage is self-inflicted,  and as one audience member noted, the story for her was about Jake’s guilt, a point I agreed with.

The gender discussion delved further into the sort of pressure and resistance female authors have when writing male characters as opposed to when male authors write female characters, and also about the average male response to finding Wyld’s book in her London bookstore: ‘I’ll buy it for my wife/girlfriend’, rather than ‘I’ll buy it for myself’. I don’t doubt all these problems, but as a male reader who bought the book for myself, I felt a bit lost. But I guess that (hopefully) makes be, um, not average? (Sadly, by the standards set by the men in this story and with violence against women such a problem in society generally, it seems this isn’t too difficult.)

Interestingly, when Ford said it was a ‘lingering’ book, and wanted to know whether it lingered for Wyld herself, Wyld said ‘I absolutely hated it when I finished. I was embarrassed by it.’ She said you ‘feel a disappointment when you finish a book’ because you wanted it to be X and it turned out to be Y. She thought it was so bad she had trouble giving it to her editor to read, and thought it wouldn’t amount to anything(!).

One audience member asked her how to go about writing strong female characters, and she made the point that you wouldn’t set out to write strong male characters, you would just write a male character, a real person. That in essence is what a writer should do when creating a female character, ‘simply’ create a person, write them as neither good nor evil, strong or weak, but merely human.

Wyld said she is a huge fan of Tim Winton and, like him, found it easier to write about Australia when overseas (she lives in London). Australia, a place she spent many years in as a child, is a place of nostalgia for her, something that clearly comes through in her writing.

Right at the end of the session, Wyld said she started the story after reading about the infamous Parker-Hulme murder in New Zealand, committed in 1954 by two girls aged 15 and 16, which the movie Heavenly Creatures is based on. Because they were so young, when found guilty the girls ‘went to juvi’, basically a slap on the wrist, and then moved separately to the UK. One lives on an island with some cattle, and has become religious. The other also moved to the UK, changed her name and is now a very successful novelist(!) and is also now very religious. The question came to Wyld: what happens if you’re an atheist and do something unforgivable? Who can forgive you? Can you forgive yourself? How do you live? This was perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the talk, as the question of where authors get the germ of an idea for a book always interests me. And it very aptly dovetailed with the theme of this year’s festival.

On that note, bring on the rest of the festival!

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SWF LogoMy favourite week of the (literary) year has arrived, with the Sydney Writers’ Festival rolling into town. The program is online at swf.org.au. As usual, it’s a case of wall-to-wall sessions for me later this week and into the weekend, but I’m easing myself into things with a one-off session at the University of New South Wales today featuring Evie Wyld, winner of last year’s Miles Franklin Award for All the birds, singing (my review here).

Authors I’m seeing later include: Brooke Davis, author of Lost and Found (my review here); Zia Haider Rahman, author of the acclaimed In the Light of What We Know, which I’m reading now and quite enjoying; Helen Macdonald, author of H is for Hawk, which I read earlier in the year and thought absolutely fabulous (I miss Mabel!); Don Watson, The Bush, another read from earlier in the year, and another stand out non fiction title from last year; Aussies Steven Carroll & John Marsden talking about creating historical fiction alongside Amy Bloom; another Aussie in Terry Hayes talking about his epic (and fabulous) thriller I Am Pilgrim; David Mitchell, discussing his genre bending The Bone Clocks (my review here), and in another session with James Bradley and others talking about dystopian futures; Ben Okri, talking about The Age of Magic; Brooke Davis (again!) and Steve Toltz (A Fraction of the Whole; Quicksand) on sentimentality in fiction; a session on book design with the inimitable WH Chong from Text Publishing and other book designers (it’s great to see a book design panel session return to SWF); Malcom Knox, Sonya Hartnett and Kari Gislason discussing the things people hide, which, having read and enjoyed Hartnett’s Miles Franklin-shortlisted novel Golden Boys, with its menacing underbelly, should be a fascinating session.

Phew, I’m tired just typing that! Should be great fun… and if you ever wanted to know what goes on behind the shelves at your local book store, then you can catch Evie Wyld, Brooke Davis and Krissy Kneen dish all, (what a shame this session is sandwiched between the normal times of other sessions, making it difficult to get to!).

I’ll get around to giving some round-ups of the pick of the sessions in the coming days.

All the birds singing by Evie WyldH is for Hawk by Helen MacdonaldIn the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider RahmanThe Bone Clocks by David MitchellLost and Found by Brooke Davis

The Bush by Don WatsonI am Pilgrim by Terry HayesQuicksand by Steve ToltzGolden Boys by Sonya HartnettThe Age of Magic by Ben Okri

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All the birds singing by Evie WyldSomething, 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

2013

Vintage

229 pages

ISBN: 9781742757308

Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka purchased!)

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