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.
on 15 July 2013
I read this book because I heard it being reviewed on the radio (in London) and was attracted by its part-Australian setting. The writer's technique of moving forwards in the present and backwards in the past is very deftly handled and is definitely not a gimmick. Consequently the reader is kept wanting to know the outcome of both the present mystery and the past experiences that led Jake (the central character)to the situation she is in today. And the ending doesn't disappoint. I don't know if Evie Wyld is Australian but she certainly captures the atmosphere of the country and the world of the sheep shearer. Much recommended.
on 27 June 2013
Jake Whyte is the lone resident of an old farmhouse. It's just her, Dog, and a flock of sheep. But not all is calm, something is coming for the sheep. It could be anything. There are foxes in the woods, a strange boy and a strange man, rumours of a beast. Plus there is Jake's unknown past, causing her unease in the present, a story hidden in Australia a story held in the scars that stripe her back.
My favourite aspect of this book was the structure. The starting chapters follow a chronological sequence before seamlessly shifting into a fractured series of snapshots of, our main character, Jake's life. It is through this style of writing that Wyld has created a beautiful narrative, revealing the character to us and developing our relationship with her. This method also enables Wyld to conceal the entire truth of Jake's life until the bitter end and a shocking denouement.
As this novel was the subject of my book group it was interesting to hear how others had reacted. The overall consensus was that the story was heart wrenching and extremely powerful, however, it was surprising to hear how specific details had been interpreted. This was most notable in the sexual orientation of the characters, from Jake and Karen's relationship to that of Jake and Lloyd. The specific setting of the sheep farm within the British Isles was also a topic of discussion. This active debate is testament to Wyld's ability to write an engaging novel with scant narrative embellishment.
No review could really be conducted without a brief discussion of the actual characters. Aside from Jake, the other character that made a lasting impression was Otto, and this was a deeply sinister one. His life and his role within Jake's life are never explicit and it is left to the reader to make assumptions. Each episode contained often graphic and disturbing descriptions, hinting at a in-explicit threat, especially when a shoe and earring are referenced.
This novel will frustrate some and fascinate other readers. The story is fractured, but the simple narrative makes it easy to follow and sew up the story in your mind. It is a dark and emotional story of one person's life and how childhood events can shape the rest of your life.
An unusual and unsettling novel, Evie Wyld's second book, is set in the heat and dust of Australia, and in the wind and rain of an unnamed island off the British coast. The narrative for the British sections move forwards in time and, interestingly, the Australian sections move backwards in time - which may seem a little confusing initially, but once you have read the first couple of chapters, you are aware of exactly where, and when, the story is taking place.
Jake Whyte, a tall, very fit young woman has come to Britain and, with a history of sheep-shearing behind her in her native Australia, she has bought a sheep farm, where she lives and works alone with her canine companion, Dog. Jake keeps herself very much to herself, and that is the way she likes it. Her nearest neighbour, Don, from whom Jake bought the farm, tries to encourage her to mix with the locals, telling her that in the harsh climate in which they live, it is essential to be able to call on neighbours in times of trouble. Jake, however, whom we come to realize is both physically and mentally scarred from a very chequered past, ignores Don's advice - she has no need of companionship, she is strong and she can manage by herself. So why then does Jake feel threatened? Why does she feel there is someone or something out in the woods waiting for her? And why does she sleep with a hammer under her pillow? And then Jake disturbs a strange man taking refuge from the weather in her barn, and when a particularly bad storm means that he has to stay on her farm for a few days, Jake comes to realize that this man is just as much of an outsider as she is. But is he friend or foe?
Moving backwards and forwards in time, Evie Wyld's novel is an unsettling and very intriguing read that, if possible, is better read in one or two sittings. The sections set in Australia are cleverly executed, and it is in these chapters that the reader gradually learns of the unpleasant events which led up to Jakes's present predicament, and these make for very engrossing, if rather disturbing reading. With themes of mental and sexual manipulation and abuse, this novel is obviously not one to choose for cosy, bedtime or relaxed holiday reading; it's an unusual and gritty story of suffering and survival and it doesn't come with a neat, entirely resolved ending - but some of us don't necessarily always want nice, cosy stories, and if you don't, then this might be what you are looking for.
"It's been seven months and I covered my tracks"
This is a harsh story of destruction, desolation and almost despair, set in a grim landscape of an unnamed British island. Jake is a young Australian sheep-farmer who lives alone, avoids company, and refuses to even name her dog anything more personal than Dog. The killing of some of her sheep triggers a circular narrative which leads us back into her past, and an explanation of how her life has come to be what it is.
The story here is one not unfamiliar in fiction but the writing is what lifts this out of the ordinary. Wyld writes with acute sensitivity and control, and creates an atmosphere of brooding dread. The images she conjures up are often chilling with a cruel and vicious edge to them which permeate the book: the guinea pigs given away in a shop and fed to a snake, the hordes of spiders which spill out of a crack in a bedroom wall.
So this isn't a light, throwaway read, it's far too fierce and violent for that - but if you want something dark written with muscular, bloody and raw prose, this is highly recommended.
Meet a woman named Jake Whyte, Australian but now living on a supposedly remote island on the British coast (although mention of Military Road, and then on page 158 a prison will undoubtedly make you recognise the Isle of Wight). The story is told through alternating chapters, thus we start off with Jake on a barren part of the Isle of Wight sheep farming, and this part of the story follows a linear and chronologically progressing path. The alternating chapters we follow Jake back when she was in Australia with each chapter going further back in time. This in itself does give this story a disjointed feeling, and thus with incidents in the past we do have some idea what will happen next.
Jake is worried about what is killing her sheep, originally thinking that it may be the local youths, but as this progresses we see why she changes her mind. Living on her own and trying to keep away from the locals Jake is definitely a loner. When she finds a strange man, Lloyd, she lets him squat down for a night, but it seems like he moves himself in. As we read of Jake’s past we see her from schoolgirl and running away and growing up. Touching on such subjects as bullying, love, prostitution, discrimination, manipulation and racism this you would think would be a meaty read, but it isn’t. Although thoughtful you do have to spend a lot of time joining the dots here and a lot is it has to be admitted never revealed. This is a very episodic read and will obviously put some off, as well as the whole structure, but does this really deliver on anything?
In all although this brings up a lot of different topics it never really gives you much to get your teeth into as it skirts issues and just leaves blank spaces where you are never really sure what is happening, making this very strange. What alas we have here is very much a book where style takes precedence over substance, making this a disappointing read to quite an extent. Nothing is ever resolved and the story is left up in the air, and you do wonder what the author originally wrote before the editing process took over. Ultimately reading this all you can see is that Jake is stuck in a vicious circle where she will make the same mistakes again.
on 26 November 2016
So. Just finished this. Hmmm. I was loving this book. I was loving the slow reveal of why Jake has become who she is. I was loving the cleverness of the book structure. I was loving the prose. And then the book just ended. I get the whole imagery thing. I get that there wasn't a big reveal regarding the mystery sheep killer but what I disliked (hence 3 stars rather than the 5 I would have given it otherwise), is the way the book just stopped. It didn't end, it stopped. This , for me, is a big problem with reading a kibdke. When you read a book, you can tell by the thickness of the unread bundle of pages in your right hand, versus those in your left hand, how much is still to be read. This results in a subconscious spacing out of the text so that, by the time there are hardly any pages still to read, yiu are ready for an ending. Sad tho you may be that the book has to end, you ARE aware and prepared for the book to end. With a Kindle, it just ends. I honestly wondered briefly if my download hadn't completed correctly.
The result of all this? Well, I wasn't ready for the story to be over. I got satisfaction regarding mist of my questions but the whole strange monster eating her sheep??? Was this yet more imagery? Was it one of those giant cats you hear about in the uk sometimes? Was it her past coming back to haunt her? I don't know but I found the abrupt ending unsatisfactory.
Jake Whyte (a woman) is a loner, a sheep farmer on a small, wet and windswept island off the coast of England. She shuns contact with the locals and her sole companion is her dog, inventively named "Dog". She's been living here for three years now, but recently something has changed and her sheep are being killed off by someone or something unknown.
Then, abruptly, we jump back in time, to the other side of the world, where Jake is working as a sheep shearer in the far north of Western Australian. She is a woman with a secret, a person of interest to the police - but we don't know why, what she has supposedly done, nor why she carries terrible scars on her body.
Gradually the two timelines unfold, one going forwards in time and one going backwards, until the reader starts to piece together the story of Jake's background and what is happening in her life now.
I really liked this book. It's hugely atmospheric - really transporting you into its dual locations. There's a feeling of tension throughout, like a David Lynch movie, where everyone has some kind of secret and things that look innocent are deeply dysfunctional underneath. It's a very confidently written book - a complex story to hold together but Wyld is totally in possession of what she wants you to know at which point. I was completely absorbed.
on 3 August 2014
I picked up a copy of this book as a summer read on display at my local library, via Norwich Writers Centre summer reads book club. http://www.writerscentrenorwich.org.uk/yoursummerreads.aspx. I'm so glad that I did.
It's about sheep and birds and a lot of animals, and all sorts of things you just wouldn't expect. Who says a sheep farm can't be exciting!
The story begins with the words, "Another sheep, mangled and bled out, her innards not yet crusting and the vapours rising from her like a steamed pudding." What a way to begin, with those initial words I was instantly drawn in and my attention just didn't waver.
Wyld tells us Jake’s current story in the past tense, and the story of her past in the present tense. An unusual device. Her past is catching up with her always there a menace that she can't escape from. The tale begins in the past tense, in England on her sheep farm. To begin with I found the main protagonist, Jake Whyte, a shady character. Who is this person? Why has she bought a farm in this remote area of England? Her name sounds like a man's name. She has a manly physique, she is no weakling, though there are hints at feminine aspects to her persona. She appears a lonely individual separated from the community in which she lives, unable or unwilling to participate. Her only companion is her dog, who is simply named Dog. This lady is not one for frills. She is a strong woman with a disturbing past, who carries the scars of that past on her back. No wonder she wants to stay hidden. Her only concession to human contact on her sheep farm in England is Don, and Don sold her the house and the land. Don regards her reluctance to engage with others as unnatural, and tries to encourage her to mix to integrate into the farming community, to find someone to share her life with, and to live a normal life.
Chapters alternate to reveal her past in Australia when she was working with a sheep shearing gang to her younger adolescent years when she made a terrible mistake that she is still paying for in the present. This earlier chapter of her life is unexpected, and shocking. No wonder she is running. She has the scars to show for it. In Australia she also has only one companion, no dog this time, a male on the sheep shearing gang. She is one woman among many male sheep shearers, yet she seems to fit in well. Gender lines blur.
In present day England something or somebody is violently killing her sheep. To begin with it she thinks it is kids but as the narrative unfolds this impression begins to change. It appears that her past is catching up on her and her poor sheep are being made to suffer for her misdeeds. What beast is tearing them apart? Is it the beast of her past rearing its ugly head?
Wyld uses several different animals within the narrative to suggest human characteristics, this is particularly evident in the portrayal of Kelly, her captor Otto's dog that she is forced to live with for a time in Australia. Kelly torments Jake with her fierce loyalty to Otto, her captor.This novel is full to buzzing with all sorts of insects, birds, sheep, dogs, fish, oh and a pigeon to mention a few. A quote from the final chapter exemplifies this. "On the beach at low tide after a storm, the sharks that have washed up are the small ones that don't need to be towed onto the sand spit first. They are just finned on the boats and plopped back into the drink...."
I can't find much at all to criticise in Wyld's book. It is wonderfully written, a stunningly clever book. My only slight niggle and it is very slight, I found it strange that she allowed a complete stranger to stay with her alone on her sheep farm in England. This seemed at odds with her reluctance to mix and trust her neighbours. Though perhaps this is a hint that she is prone to making impulsive decisions that can sometimes go badly, as in her past? Several reviewers have found fault with the ambiguous ending of the book. I found the ending a challenge I must say, but after much consideration, I thought it was an excellent ending. It was very thought-provoking. I'm not sure I would say the novel is about forgiveness, I think it is more about trust, doing the right thing, and letting go off the past so that you can allow another person into your life, to share life's difficulties. But that's just my impression of it! I read the final two chapters several times before I could come to an understanding and to some closure. It is a novel that makes you draw your own conclusions. All the Birds Singing is without doubt a memorable book that in its quiet way draws you into a narrative that is mysterious and intriguing. One read through may just not be enough!
I would highly recommend it for readers of Literary Fiction, Mystery, and Contemporary Fiction.
Longlisted for the Bailey's Womans prize for Fiction 2014. In 2013 Evie Wyld was named among Granta's Best of Young British Novelists.
My full review is at www.kyrosmagica.wordpress.com
on 16 September 2014
This book appears to have received huge acclaim from the critics, being compared to early Ian McEwan by one. And no doubt it is beautifully written & is interesting & absorbing. But it is on the whole a rather harrowing story, which as it is progresses does not get less so. The protagonist is pursued by evils real and/or imagined, & although there are happier moments the (for me) overall impression is of the grimness of her existence.
The characters are well drawn & believable, as is the progression of events, & my personal aversion to certain nasty aspects does not affect its verisimilitude. There are a couple of elements which I found a bit forced: the timely arrival of (totally sympathetic) Lloyd (though I admit it's no more arbitrary than any other event in any novel) - but particularly this fortuitous legacy which enabled her to buy the farm presumably, when she was in a very tight corner.
I said the plot was believable, but this was less true of the unseen menace, for reasons I can't elaborate here; it is possible, even likely, that this is in her own mind after the past she has had, & it is possible & equally likely that it is real. I will just say I found the ending rather annoying & unsatisfactory, though there is (a rather ambiguous) hint at a better future
The very last chapter sums in a simple low-key way the harshness & sadness of the world & of her situation; and it is moving. Yet for me even so it didn't really work, feeling a bit tacked on.
I don't wish to give the impression that this book resembles a misery memoir; the prose is superb, simple but earthy & robust, and the narrative zings with life & humour, as if to counteract the grimness or pathos of what it is often describing. It is in that sense life-affirming, & the title, very significant in the book, seems to underline that idea.
It is a pity, then, that I didn't enjoy the book more. I wonder if this might be because I've missed something important. But perhaps it is simply that I no longer have the stomach for such a reality.