I’ve been hearing great things about Evie Wyld, so I approached this book with some trepidation. Often when I have great expectations, the reality falls a little flat. I’m glad to say, that wasn’t my experience this time.
All the Birds, Singing follows the story of Jake, an Australian woman running a sheep farm somewhere in the damp wilds of Britain (I sense Scotland). There is something menacing the farm; at first Jake thinks it is the local kids but later on it begins to look like some kind of wild animal. Wyld lands you straight into the action with this gripping opening:
“Another sheep, mangled and bled out, her innards not yet crusting and the vapours rising from her like a steamed pudding.”
Aside from her concerns about the sheep there is something menacing Jake, something from her past. There are scars on her back which are unexplained, for which Jake gives different explanations to different people. There is the question of her apparently chosen isolation, her reluctance to mingle with the locals or accept help from anyone with the exception of Don, her neighbour and the man she bought the farm from. It is clear that Jake is afraid of something, someone perhaps. Sometimes she calls home, but doesn’t speak when her mother picks up the phone. It is clear she is hiding from something.
Jake’s past is gradually revealed by a series of look backs, deftly woven in between the narrative of her present story. Chapters switch from present to past and back again, but this is never jarring instead it is a kind of unveiling, revealing how Jake ended up here, paranoid and lonely, on a farm in the middle of nowhere. There is such a contrast between Jake’s early life in Australia, the heat and barrenness compared to the dark damp and cold of Britain, and yet though the locations are so different there is also a common thread: the isolation, the sense of fear, the sense of something wild and dangerous, something uncontrolled, which threatens to dissolve Jake’s sense of security.
Though Jake craves aloneness, she is not alone. She has her sheep, Dog (her dog, called Dog), and both in present and past an unexpected friendship. In the present it is Lloyd, a seemingly homeless man who Jake almost shoots having mistaken him for the menacing animal that threatens her sheep. In the past a range of men: Greg, Otto, Denver. Each of the men offers her kindness, in some cases at a cost, but it is the last of them, Lloyd, who seems to offer Jake a chance of redemption.
There are a lot of themes running through this book. Guilt and responsibility run the most deeply through the story, along with isolation, fear, abuse - particularly directed towards women, and the difficulty of overcoming bad choices. Jake is a complex character. She is strong, determined and physically very capable. As one of the characters describes her, she’s ‘a good bloke’. In other respects she is distant, stubborn and paranoid, she refuses help, refuses to compromise in order to fit in with the community. Throughout the story you get the feeling that this is something Jake does to protect herself, it is plain she is carrying pain from the past and her isolation helps to protect her from worsening this pain or from being found out by those she’s hiding from. On the other hand, as the story develops, you begin to wonder if perhaps Jake is protecting others from herself; increasingly Jake’s actions seem reckless and dangerous. She almost shoots Lloyd, kills one of her own sheep, accidentally crushes a pigeon to death. Who is in need of protection?
This is where All the Birds, Singing is such a successful book; in it Wyld plays with all your preconceptions, showing how outward appearances can tell you nothing. Just when you think you are beginning to know who Jake is, to feel sympathy or disgust, the picture changes and suddenly the story of who she is unravels. Whatever you think you know, only by digging deeper can you begin to understand and even then understanding is a fiction. Wyld shows how complex people can be, how their paths are not a straight line but a jumble of string, with knots here and there that link one thread to another but which deny untangling. It is a masterful piece of story-telling. The pace is just about perfect, with each revelation you’re forced to rethink, to reassess, the language and writing is beautiful. Wyld evokes the damp-greyness of a British island alongside the raw heat of Australia and connects them, showing that people are the same regardless of where they are, how the differences are largely superficial. And in doing so she shows how it doesn’t matter where we go, how far we run, how hard we try to hide, we cannot escape ourselves.
All the Birds, Singing is an amazing book by a masterful writer. I look forward to reading more by Evie Wyld in the future.