Evie Wyld is the most successful graduate of my Creative Writing MA, having won the European Union Prize for Literature in 2014 with this very book: All The Birds, Singing. This was Wyld’s second novel, and though I haven’t read her first, I have previously engaged with her graphic memoir (co-created with Joe Sumner) all about sharks, Everything Is Teeth, which I thoroughly enjoyed. A few weeks ago I found a copy of All The Birds, Singing in a leisure centre I’d gone to for a game of squash (as mentioned elsewhere, I’m not very much fun any more), so took it with me and gave it a read. Was it worth the theft? (Not really a theft.) Was it worth the guilt? (Not really any guilt.) Let’s find out, strange people who read the depressed ramblings of a sad bald man, as we enter another bloody “literary lifestyle” blog post…
All The Birds, Singing is a beautiful, tense, novel with an interesting structure. We see the same character, a woman, as she lives and works as a sheep farmer on a remote British island, then simultaneously we see the previous life in Australia that led her there. In the present of the novel her sheep are being violently killed, and in the past – told episodically, backwards – we see a life veer from horrible to terrible to depressing to petty to childhood, as Jake Whyte gets further away from the strong handler of sheep that she seems to be at the novel’s opening. All The Birds, Singing is a book about memory, regret, shame and failing attempts to leave ones past behind, and it also explores the importance of community and interaction, which is something that made me and my solitary self feel a little worried. Oh, well.
Jake Whyte lives alone but for a dog called Dog, on a rain-battered island somewhere off the coast of the UK. She has a herd of sheep and a cottage and strained relationships with most of the locals, despite having been there a few years. She does not interact with her neighbours other than with Don, an old widower who used to own the house she now lives in. There is a community of farmers on the island, but she is apart from it, choosing not to visit the only pub because she prefers to be alone. This both gives her freedom to ignore her own past, but also the isolation that leads, inevitably, to dwelling within it, and the reader is transported backwards – not in a direct, Proustian, way – as she recalls the actions that led her to where she is. A constantly hanging mystery is the origin of the large scars Jake has across her back.
In the past – the most recent past, but still a few years earlier than the life in the UK – things start alright, with Jake working amongst a group of sheep shearers in the Australian Outback. This momentary idyll seems pleasant for a few pages, before Jake is forced to leave when someone discovers information about her past. This is left vague for the reader, and we learn things very slowly over the course of the novel. We hear references to names and objects and phrases that clearly have import, but we do not know why. We discover where Jake was before the sheep ranch and it was bad but not scarring, we discover where she was before that and it was worse but not scarring, we discover where she was before THAT and it’s worse but – and so on, finding moments of happiness in a sad, at times bleak, life, as time recedes and we become closer to the inevitable reveal of what it was that caused all the unpleasantness that Jake’s adult life has contained.
Wyld’s writing is great, with a particular strength in dialogue and descriptions of place, including plants and animals (especially sheep and all the scary fauna of Australia). This manages to be both a satisfying novel about rural England and rural Australia, two places that are different in many ways, but the emotions and behaviour that isolation fosters tend to lead to similar things: booze ‘n’ drugs, sex, fear, needing to trust people you don’t want to. Wyld describes two landscapes: one wet, one dry, but both harsh. There are dangerous people and animals in both, the environment is very much a hostile character in both places. Is this a city-loving bias Wyld is exhibiting? I don’t know. I don’t know.
All The Birds, Singing is gripping, the central plots of each narrative thread (what is killing the sheep? what happened to Jake?) give a reader a firm reason to return to both of the [linked] narratives, and as ideas of protagonist perception and reliability float nearer to the surface as the novel progresses, it becomes a deeply involving voyage through the mind of someone with far more horror in her history than we initially suspect.
This is a novel about not being able to run away from problems and about the accrual of memory, about the accrual of regret and about the failure of geographical distance to help with unhappiness when the real problem is memory, internal, and thus cannot be repressed. This is a great novel, eerie, creepy, human, but with warmth flickering through its edges. Nature and humanity, fighting against each other, memory failing to be overwhelmed by constant distraction, exhaustion and alcohol. A powerful text, much better and relevant than anything I could do and proof, perhaps, that it takes more than just a solid education to be a good writer.
Worth a read.