Quite by coincidence, I read Evie Wyld’s second novel All the birds, singing straight after Eleanor Catton’s The luminaries. I was intrigued by some similarities – both have a mystery at their core, and both use a complex narrative structure – but enjoyed their differences. Wyld’s book is tightly focused on one main character while Catton’s sprawls (albeit in a very controlled way) across a large cast. Paradoxically, Wyld’s 230-page book spans a couple of decades while Catton’s 830-page one barely more than a year. And yet both convey, through their structures, an idea of circularity, of the close relationship between beginnings and endings. But, enough prologue. On with All the birds singing.
The book opens powerfully:
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 to the trees and watched, flaring our their wings, singing, if you could call it that. I shoved my boot in 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.
And so we are introduced to Jake and the things that dominate her life – Dog, sheep and birds. Soon, we learn there’s another thing – fear. But fear of what, or whom, we don’t know. From this opening, Wyld tells her story in alternating chapters: the odd ones, set in England, move forward, and the even ones, in Australia, move back to what started it all. It’s an effective structure that explores the ongoing impact on Jake of whatever it was that happened. We see what’s happening now, and we slowly see how she has got to this point.
Jake, at the start of the novel, is in her 30s. She’s a loner, capably running a sheep farm on a remote British island. Her nearest neighbour, Don, keeps a bit of a fatherly eye on her, and tries to encourage her to engage with the local community, to go to the pub for example, but Jake is not interested. As we move back in time we learn snippets about various significant people in her life – a lover while she was a shearer, a controlling man whom she’d initially seen as her rescuer, a female friend and co-worker. We also learn that she’s estranged from her Australian family, and we discover that she has scars on her back, but how they were caused are part of the mystery.
Wyld’s writing is marvellous. The imagery is strong but not heavy-handed because it blends into the story. The rhythm changes to suit the mood. The plot contains parallels that you gradually realise are pointing the way. There’s humour and irony. I love the fact that our Jake, on the run from whatever it is, smokes “Holiday” brand cigarettes.
There’s a bleakness to the novel, but it’s not unremitting. Jake, always the outsider, is tough and resourceful. She sleeps with a hammer under her pillow, but she has a soft side that is revealed mostly through her tenderness towards her animals. She talks to Dog, and losing a sheep always brings “a dull thudding ache”. The imagery is focused. Black, shadows, and fire in various permutations recur throughout the novel. They provide possible clues to what started it all; they contribute to the menace she feels now; and they help create an unsettling tone for the reader. We are never quite sure whether the shadow she sees out there, watching, following her, is real or a figment of her imagination. Jake is not an unreliable narrator, but we see through her eyes, and her eyes are influenced by her very real fears. She is “damaged goods”, though not in the sense meant by the paying customer (if you know what I mean!) offended by her scarred back.
And of course, there are the birds. They’re omnipresent. Sometimes they reflect her mood (“the birds sing and everything feels brand new”); sometimes they break tension; sometimes they suggest death. There are specific birds – butcher birds, night jars, galahs, merlins, currawongs and crows – and there are birds in general. The imagery references the real and metaphorical, from the crows hovering over the dead ewe in the opening paragraph to the birds near the end that attend the defining event:
[…] and the birds scream, they scream at me, Chip, chjjj, cheek, Jaay and jaay-jaay notes, Tool-ool, twiddle-dee, chi-chuwee, what-cheer … Wheet, wheet, wheet, wheet […]
The trees don’t want me there … There’s not a single bird to make a sound.
All the birds, singing is about how the past cannot “be left alone”. “We’ve all got pasts”, the shearers’ boss tells Jake early in the novel, but for some people the past must be dealt with before they can move on. The novel is also about redemption. It’s not the first novel about the subject, and neither will it be the last, but it is a finely told version that catches you in its grips and makes you feel you are reading it for the first time.
John at Musings of a Literary Dilettante loved the book too. Thanks to my brother and family for a wonderful Christmas gift!
All the birds, singing
North Sydney: Vintage Books, 2013