Reviewed by David Hebblethwaite
She may only be on her second novel, but Evie Wyld is already gathering considerable acclaim. Her debut, 2009’s After the Fire, a Still Small Voice, won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and a Betty Trask Award. Last year, she was named one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists; now, All the Birds, Singing has won the Encore Award, the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize, and the Miles Franklin Literary Award. When you read Wyld’s books, it’s not hard to see why all these accolades have come her way.
As a way of setting out a novel’s stall, the opening sentence of All the Birds, Singing works very well indeed:
“Another sheep, mangled and bled out, her innards not yet crusting and the vapours rising from her like a steamed pudding.”
From this, we can infer that the novel being introduced will be unsentimental about the harsh realities of its protagonist’s life; and full of smells and other sensations, often unpleasant ones. But then there’s that image of the steamed pudding, a seemingly incongruous reference to home comforts; a suggestion, perhaps, that even this life of blood and death has its positive points for the individual who’s living it.
That individual is Jake Whyte, a woman whom we first meet living on an island somewhere off the British coast, with no company but her dog and flock of sheep. We then step into Jake’s past in Australia, where we find her working on a sheep station having clearly left somewhere in a hurry; when one of Jake’s colleagues threatens to reveal her secret unless she sleeps with him, she punches him hard enough to break his jaw – and that is the latest event we’ll see of Jake’s Australian life, because the rest of that narrative strand goes backwards chronologically.
As in After the Fire, a Still Small Voice, Wyld works with two parallel narratives which remain separate but nevertheless reflect and illuminate each other – and that’s not simply because they chronicle stages in the same character’s life. Wyld highlights the contrasts and similarities between the environments in which Jake finds herself: she’s looking after sheep in both, and doing so is (to an extent) a means for her to escape the past. But the sheep station is a very different place from the island: life in the former, with its workers arriving from all over, is transitory; the latter feels much more like Jake’s attempt to build a permanent life for herself. That impression is underlined by the use of different tenses: Jake’s narration on the island is in the past tense, while her flashbacks are in the present tense – so the chronological present feels more stable than what (for Jake) has already happened.
Mysteries power both narratives in All the Birds, Singing. The mystery of the flashbacks is, of course, how Jake got to where she ended up, and the nature of the secrets in her past. Wyld constructs this well, revealing just enough information to maintain the tension (there’s more than one revelation to be had about Jake’s history), and allowing the past to bleed into the present in ways that enrich both.
On the island, the mystery is a matter of concern for Jake: something is killing her sheep – maybe a wild animal, maybe something more human. I think there’s a clear metaphor at play here: Jake’s flock is her protection, the stability of her life; anything that threatens the sheep is then threatening the equilibrium of her life. The story of this plot strand is, for me, the story of how Jake finds a place among the community of people on the island, rather than just living by herself. Jake befriends a man named Lloyd, which allows her to build a relationship from first principles, as it were; after we’ve seen Jake verbally outmanoeuvred in a few conversations with islanders early on, there’s a strong note of optimism to her thought about Lloyd: “He doesn’t know me.”
The ending of All the Birds, Singing (perhaps I should say ‘endings’ because of the two strands, but I still think of the ending as a complete ‘unit’) takes a turn into an unexpected place, and for me it works perfectly – it shows how far Jake has come, balanced with a bitter note of irony. It puts the cap on another fine piece of work by Evie Wyld.
Evie Wyld, All the Birds, Singing (Vintage: London, 2014). 9780099572374, 240pp., paperback