Top positive review
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With a little bit of this and a little bit of that
on 27 June 2014
Every once in a while, a book comes along that is so good it makes you resent all the time spent reading inferior books.
All The Birds, Singing is one such book.
The novel comprises two stories. One is a woman running a farm on an un-named English island. Her sheep start to get attacked at night, and she gets the feeling that the perpetrator is not human... The other, frankly, more compelling story is of a young woman working on a remote sheep station in the Western Australian desert.
The stories interlink, but never overlap. The English island story is told in a conventional forward narrative whilst the Australian narrative presents a series of episodes that work backwards in time. This might sound tricksy, but it isn't. It just reads and flows very naturally.
The super strength of the novel is that whilst the description is tight and evocative, there are gaps between the chapters, lines between which so much can be read. The reader is invited to ask how on earth Jake, the lead female character in both stories, got from there to here (or from here to there in the backwards narrative). Relationships are ambiguous and might be clarified by a subsequent chapter, only to be left wide open again in the chapter afterwards. It is clear that Jake has a past, has secrets. Just enough of these is eventually revealed to make sense, but not enough to tie up all the loose ends. These loose ends will keep fraying and playing on the reader's mind, long after the final chapter.
The Australian narrative is superb; it would happily stand up to the classics in portraying the loneliness, hardship and macho culture of Outback Australia. It is set in contemporary times but could almost have been written at any point in the last 80 years or more. Every sentence smacks of authenticity. The wildlife is right; the birds are right. Flawless.
The English island is less well created. Its lack of grounding on any real place is telling. It doesn't know whether it is a small place where everyone knows everyone, or a large place with downs, a prison and a regular car ferry. Geographically, it also feels cast adrift, part home counties, part west country. Although there are clear attempts to compare and contrast between the island and the Australian Outback, it falls slightly flat because it is comparing something real to something imagined. Similarly with the people; Otto in Port Hedland feels real; Lloyd on the island feels imagined. Jake in WA is a real jillaroo whereas Jake the island farmer never quite convinces.
Nevertheless, Evie Wyld does create a sense of menace on her island and, perhaps, a sense of poetic justice. Perhaps the island is supposed to be imagined. That's the thing, the novel just leaves the reader asking so many questions.
All in all, this is a pretty astonishing book that has deservedly won Australia's Miles Franklin Prize in a particularly competitive year. Well done Evie Wyld.