It just goes to show there is no formula for an award-winning novel. Evie Wyld’s second book, All the Birds, Singing, collected the 2015 Miles Franklin Award yet only managed the long-list for The Stella Award (the Australian prize presented exclusively to women novelists). The relatively short novel also picked up the European Union Prize for Literature yet failed to feature in the shortlists of the prestigious Victoria and NSW Premier’s Literary Prizes.
But there again, All the Birds, Singing is something of a polarising novel. Some have loved it, some hated it (“…more like a cacophony than singing” is a personal favourite). That it elicits a response, there is no doubt. Personally, I sit somewhere in the middle.
Living alone on an unnamed island off the coast of England constantly battered by wind and rain, Jake Whyte has isolated herself from the local farming community. Emotionally and physically scarred, Jake is on the run from her past. And now, someone or something is killing her sheep.
Like the wild, untamed landscape of the island, All the Birds, Singing is a bleak, unsettling story with a fractured narrative. As Jake battles her present day demons of traumatised loneliness, haunted by that past, so the unreliable narrator (Jake herself) slowly reveals her dark history. ‘Told’ in reverse chronology, Jake’s Australian origins slowly build. Yet, dark though that story may be, forcing her to flee her homeland, it is the present day narrative that has a pervasive sense of foreboding and threat.
With, initially, only her dog, Dog, for company, Jake is undoubtedly struggling. A wet, cold English farm is very different to a vast Australian sheep station. And there’s no sense of homeliness to her homestead. Even the wholly impractical Lloyd, an ageing drifter on his own melancholic mission who takes up residence on her couch, offers little respite from the drudgery of the farm and the slaughter of the sheep. Is it kids, foxes or what?
“Another sheep, mangled and bled out, her innards not yet crusting and the vapours rising from her like a steamed pudding.”
With such brooding imagery and its menacing characters, suspense is the greatest strength of All the Birds, Singing. No matter how unrelenting the bleakness (whether in the cold, wet English countryside or the sun-scorched heat of northern Western Australia), the mystery of events in both locations remains paramount. What happened to Jake? What are the scars are her back? Who, and what, is Otto? And who (or what) is killing the sheep?
And it is this mystery that ultimately retains interest in a fractured novel that is simultaneously hypnotic and frustrating.
As with her first book, After the Fire, A Still Small Voice, Evie Wyld can certainly write beautifully and build a plethora of fascinating characters. Yet, ultimately All the Birds, Singing does not ring true.
Aside from the pedantic questions of just how did Jake migrate from Australia, settle and purchase a farm, there is little conviction of Jake in Australia being the same Jake currently on a farm on a cold, wet island in the UK. The novelist has, to my mind, failed to tie the two stories and characterisation together.
Beautifully written it may be (and definitely holds promise for the future), but All the Birds, Singing sadly does not come close to her wonderful debut novel, After the Fire, A Still Small Voice.