In Evie Wyld’s second novel, Jake Whyte, a shearer with a murky past, has left Australia and begun a new life as a sheep farmer on a remote British island. In theory, all she should have to do is tend the sheep and live quietly. But soon she finds herself dealing with suspicious locals, a mysterious visitor named Lloyd, and the vicious attacks on the animals. But why has she fled her own country? Who is she hiding from? And what caused the terrible scars all over her back?
In alternating chapters, All the Birds, Singing tells the story of Jake’s life now, and the events which have brought her to the island. Structurally, the even-numbered backstory chapters move in reverse chronological order, so in most cases we see effects transpire before their causes become apparent. It’s often the case in books with this sort of structure that one “strand” of narrative is more engrossing than the other, leaving the reader keen to dash through certain chapters, keen to get back to the storyline that interests him more; Wyld’s skill, achieved partly by keeping each chapter terse and to-the-point, is to ensure that never happens.
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The careful meting out of revelations as All the Birds, Singing goes on ratchets up the tension, more so than might seem feasible for a set of chapters which moves backwards in time. To show why and how Jake should end up in the bleak farmhouse setting, watching her back all the time, we are shown a series of appalling incidents: Jake is variously abused, abducted, preyed upon and cast out, all amply justifying her decision to leave her past life behind. This is a slim novel, though, and I found myself wishing Wyld had spent more time with the “past Jake”; characters come and go very quickly in these episodes, and there’s something a little too neat about the way the structure operates, with each chapter effectively posing a question which the subsequent, “earlier” fragment answers, before setting up its own question. It all unfurls from, or perhaps furls into, very satisfyingly, a scene which not only explains the novel’s rather cumbersome title (I hear Wyld agonised about the comma; my view is that the name fails to speak to the novel’s contents) but demonstrates in chilling fashion the split-second decision that has had the far-reaching ramifications we’ve so far seen.
It all unfurls from, or perhaps furls into, very satisfyingly, a scene which not only explains the novel’s rather cumbersome title but demonstrates in chilling fashion the split-second decision that has had the far-reaching ramifications we’ve so far seen
In the contemporary chapters, similar tension is generated through a series of enigmatic incidents and ambiguous visitors. A disturbed young man, son of the former resident of the farmhouse where Jake now lives, turns up in a disordered state; another man, Lloyd, seemingly a down-and-out, is found sleeping in one of the farm buildings, his past as mysterious as Jake’s own. It takes some time for Jake to trust him, but eventually they become housemates, though not quite confidants. I found Lloyd a little underdeveloped, though the dialogue between him and Jake is beautifully observed – each of them taking great pains to avoid being tender to one another. The necessity of leaving Lloyd’s motives uncertain, and the fact that Wyld’s story, so tightly plotted, has something of the thriller about it, meant I found myself half-expecting Lloyd to be some agent of the people she’s left behind in Australia, tying the two narrative strands together. Instead, they pair up to investigate what is brutally killing sheep on the farm – an animal, Jake thinks, neither a fox nor a cat, glimpsed at times and apparently capable of entering the house.
The concluding chapter, in which they seem to confront the creature which has been terrorising them, takes the most tentative step towards suggesting a happy future for these characters, though its lips are sealed as to the nature of the “monster” they have found. (This reader suspects the killer to be of the genus Metaphoram colossus.) At the same time, a subtle parallel between events in the “then” and “now” chapters gives a similarly opaque hint that Jake has overcome the past which has brought her to this place. This is a terrific novel, beautifully written, whose only flaw arises from the admittedly enviable control Wyld exercises over her prose, her story and her characters. The consequence is that the book feels a little over-precise. In her next book, I’d love to see her really cut loose and take big risks. She’s a great writer: they’d easily pay off. C