All the Birds, Singing

The first sentence of Evie Wyld’s extraordinary new novel, All the Birds, Singing, is an assault on the senses. “Another sheep, mangled and bled out, her innards not yet crusting and vapors rising from her like a steamed pudding.” Next we see “Crows, their beaks shining, strutting and rasping…” From this visceral opening to the novel’s final page, as Wyld shuttles us back and forth between a remote British island and the Australian Outback, she never loosens her grip. In scenes of stark lyrical beauty, the natural world is conjured up with uncanny force and humanity exposed in all its frailty — though the novel’s narrator, an Australian sheep farmer, is hardly frail. She recalls, for example, an unwanted advance: “He scrapes a finger over my crotch, and like a mechanical game at the fairground, something is triggered and I punch him in the jaw with my right and he goes down, out cold and bleeding on the floor…. I am fairly sure that I have broken his jaw.”  

Jake Whyte is a woman on the run, but that is almost beside the point; Wyld is too subtle and curious a writer to produce a chase novel or a conventional outlaw. Instead, she keeps us guessing by constructing a narrative that dodges and weaves its way from the present to the past and back again, from Jake’s Australian childhood to her homestead on an unnamed island off the British coast. “You show up, arm in a sling, looking like a lesbian or a hippy or something,” a neighboring farmer observes in a genial attempt to persuade the loner to mix with the island locals. But mysterious attacks on her sheep and strange nocturnal visitations only intensify Jake’s wariness.

For protection she has sheepdog, a hammer under her pillow, an axe handle in her kitchen, and a body toughened by work. Mainly, she has her senses, alert to every detail from “…a barn owl on her final patrol who broke up the dawn, a lone swimmer in an empty sea” to the staleness in a squalid room “…like he keeps a bowl of stew under his bed.”  Sex, whether performed for affection or money, is a distant memory, plainly  — even brutally —  described, while love  is long gone. The rhythm of Jake’s days, wonderfully evoked, is dictated by livestock and weather, but this changes when a vagrant seeks shelter in her barn. ” ‘If you don’t leave in the morning, I will shoot you,’ I said, but his eyes had closed and he was already asleep.”  

The stranger stays, and the novel’s tension eases a little, in the present at least, allowing for moments of wry humor and rough tenderness to break through without curdling into sentimentality. All the while, the puzzle of the past is gracefully assembled in alternating chapters that return to Australia and to episodes in Jake’s life, each one of which has the compressed power of a short story. “We drive through an old flaky wooden gate and up to a homestead,” one chapter begins. “I turn to look in all directions, but there is nothing to see — some black hills long and far in the distance, a backdrop for the desert. I can see flies in the air…” Another Australian writer, the underrated Nevil Shute, comes to mind when Wyld evokes a forlorn place or a small life with such intensity that each shimmers before us.