From one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists, a stunningly insightful, emotionally powerful new novel about an outsider haunted by an inescapable past: a story of loneliness and survival, guilt and loss, and the power of forgiveness.
Jake Whyte is living on her own in an old farmhouse on a craggy British island, a place of ceaseless rain and battering wind. Her disobedient collie, Dog, and a flock of sheep are her sole companions, which is how she wants it to be. But every few nights something—or someone—picks off one of the sheep and sounds a new deep pulse of terror. There are foxes in the woods, a strange boy and a strange man, and rumors of an obscure, formidable beast. And there is also Jake’s past, hidden thousands of miles away and years ago, held in the silences about her family and the scars that stripe her back—a past that threatens to break into the present. With exceptional artistry and empathy, All the Birds, Singing reveals an isolated life in all its struggles and stubborn hopes, unexpected beauty, and hard-won redemption.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.80(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.20(d)|
About the Author
EVIE WYLD grew up in Australia and London, where she currently resides. She has won the John Llewellyn-Rhys prize and a Betty Trask Award, and she has been short-listed for the Orange Award for New Writers, the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize, and the Costa Novel Award.
Read an Excerpt
Another sheep, mangled and bled out, her innards not yet crusting and the vapours rising from her like a steamed pudding. Crows, their beaks shining, strutting and rasping, and when I waved my stick they flew to the trees and watched, flaring out their wings, singing, if you could call it that. I shoved my boot in Dog’s face to stop him from taking a string of her away with him as a souvenir, and he kept close by my side as I wheeled the carcass out of the field and down into the woolshed.
I’d been up that morning, before the light came through, out there, talking to myself, telling the dog about the things that needed doing as the blackbirds in the hawthorn started up. Like a mad woman, listening to her own voice, the wind shoving it back down my throat and hooting over my open mouth like it had done every morning since I moved to the island. With the trees rattling in the copse and the sheep blaring out behind me, the same trees, the same wind and sheep.
That made two deaths in a month. The rain started to come down, and a sudden gust of wind flung sheep shit at the back of my neck so it stung. I pulled up my collar and shielded my eyes with my hand.
Cree-cra, cold, cree-cra, cold.
“What are you laughing at?” I shouted at the crows and lobbed a stone at them. I wiped my eyes with the back of my hand and breathed in and out heavily to get rid of the blood smell. The crows were silent. When I turned to look, five of them sat in a row on the same branch, eyeing me but not speaking. The wind blew my hair in my eyes.
The farm shop at Marling had a warped and faded sign at the foot of its gate that read FREE BABY GUINEA PIGS. There was never any trace of the free guinea pigs and I had passed the point of being able to ask. The pale daughter of the owner was there, doing a crossword. She looked up at me, then looked back down like she was embarrassed.
“Hi,” I said.
She blushed but gave me the smallest of acknowledgements. She wore a thick green tracksuit and her hair was in a ponytail. Around her eyes was the faint redness that came after a night of crying or drinking.
Normally the potatoes from that place were good, but they all gave a little bit when I picked them up. I put them back down and moved over to tomatoes, but they weren’t any good either. I looked up out the window to where the farm’s greenhouse stood and saw the glass was all broken.
“Hey,” I said to the girl, who when I turned around was already looking at me, sucking the end of her pencil. “What happened to your greenhouse?”
“The wind,” she said, taking her pencil to the side of her mouth just for a moment. “Dad said to say the wind blew it in.”
I could see the glass scattered outside where normally they kept pots of ugly pink cyclamen with a sign that said THE JEWEL FOR YOUR WINTER GARDEN. Just black earth and glass now.
“Wow,” I said.
“Things always get mad on New Year’s Eve,” said the girl in an older voice that surprised both of us. She blushed deeper and turned her eyes back to her crossword. In the greenhouse, the man who normally ran the shop sat with his head in his hands.
I took some oranges and leeks and lemons to the counter. I didn’t need anything, the trip was more about the drive than the supplies. The girl dropped her pencil out of her mouth and started to count oranges, but wasn’t sure of herself and started again a few times over. There was a smell of alcohol about her, masked by too much perfume. A hangover then. I imagined an argument with her father. I looked up at the greenhouse again, the man in it still with his head in his hands, the wind blowing through.
“Are there nine there?” she asked, and even though I hadn’t counted as I put them in the basket I said yes. She tapped things into the till.
“Must be hard to lose the greenhouse,” I said, noticing a small blue bruise at the girl’s temple. She didn’t look up.
“It’s not so bad. We should have had an order over from the mainland, but the ferry’s not going today.”
“The ferry’s not going?”
“Weather’s too bad,” she said, again in that old voice that embarrassed us both.
“I’ve never known that to happen.”
“It happens,” she said, putting my oranges in one bag and the rest in another. “They built the new boats too big so they aren’t safe in bad weather.”
“Do you know what the forecast is?”
The girl glanced up at me quickly and lowered her eyes again.
“No. Four pounds twenty please.” She slowly counted out my money. It took two goes to get the change right. I wondered what new thing she’d heard about me. It was time to leave, but I didn’t move.
“So what’s with the free guinea pigs?”
The flush came back to her face. “They’ve gone. We gave them to my brother’s snake. There were loads.”
The girl smiled. “It was years ago.”
“Sure,” I said.
The girl put the pencil back in her mouth and her eyes fluttered back down to her crossword. She was just colouring in the white squares, it turned out.
In the truck, I found I had left the oranges in the shop. I looked out of my rear-view mirror at the smashed greenhouse and saw the man inside standing up with his hands on his hips looking at me. I locked the doors and drove away without the oranges.
It started to rain heavily, and I turned up the heating and put the wipers on full speed. We drove past the spot I usually stopped to walk Dog and he sat in the passenger seat and stared at me hard, and every time I turned to look at him he put his ears up, like we were mid-conversation and I was avoiding his look. “So what?” I said. “You’re a dog.” And then he turned around and looked out the window.
Midway home it caught up with me and I pulled over into the entrance to an empty field. Dog gazed stoically out the window, still and calm, and I pressed my thumb into the bridge of my nose to try and take away the prickling, clung on to the skin of my chest with the nails of my other hand to melt away that old -thudding ache that came with losing a sheep, a bead of blood landing in an open eye. I cried drily, honking and with my mouth open, rocking the truck and feeling something grappling around inside me getting no closer to coming out. Have a good cry; it was the kind of thing Mum’d say to a triplet in the hope a visit to the hospital wasn’t necessary. Like the time Cleve fell out of a tree and cried it out, and we found out later he had a broken arm. But there was nothing good in my crying—it prevented me from breathing, it hurt. I stopped once my nose began to bleed, cleaned it up with the shammy I used on the days the windows were iced on the inside and drove home, calmly. On the Military Road near to the turning home, some teenagers fondled about at the bus stop. When they saw me coming one of the boys pretended to put something in his mouth, another mounted him from behind and humped him while he mimed throwing a lasso. The girls laughed and gave me the finger. As I rounded the corner the boy with the lasso dropped his trousers and showed his white arse.
Reading Group Guide
This guide is designed to enhance your reading group’s focus on some of the main concepts in this book and to enable readers to explore and share different perspectives. Feel free to wander in your discussions, and use this as a guideline only.
1. The story opens with Jake’s present life. We learn about her past in a backwards progression. How does this affect your reading of the book?
2. Jake lives alone and away from others in a self-imposed hermitage: from fear, for protection, out of habit. What is the difference between being alone and being lonely? Do you think Jake is lonely?
3. Jake has run away from home, family, and safety to escape something terrible she has done. What do you think the consequences would have been if she had stayed?
4. Have you ever kept an experience in your past a secret from people you know? What does keeping secrets do to a person?
5. Is Jake’s terror of being caught in proportion to what she has done? Does the fear get bigger the farther away she goes? Will it ever go away?
6. The crows calling over the mangled sheep on the island, the carrier pigeon that Jake squeezes just a bit too hard, and, of course, the birds from the final passage of Jake’s revealed past: within this work, birds are often associated with death. What other symbols do you find in this story?
7. Describe Jake’s relationship with Karen. Who is stronger? Who is saving whom?
8. How did Jake end up with Otto? When/why/how does he change?
9. Why does Jake stay with Otto for so long? What do you think would happen if he ever did find her, and do you think he’s actively looking?
10. While at the sheep ranch, Jake finds temporary safety with Greg. What makes him different from the men she’s known to that point? Why does she leave him?
11. On the island, Jake visits some of the local places. There’s the small shop to buy oranges, the teahouse for a Devon cream: What does Jake get from these places? Do you think it makes a difference that these shopkeepers are women?
12. While Jake is on the ranch in Australia, one of the rams is killed by an animal, and Jake later sees a dark shape dart into her room. It is doglike, and she immediately thinks of Otto’s dog, Kelly. How does this fear follow her to England?
13. While Jake is in England, something is killing her sheep. The reader never finds out what it is, but in the end, Lloyd sees it, too. Is it real? What do you think it is?
14. One of the shearers kills a dying ram: “One second horribly wounded, feeling flies lay their eggs in your flesh and watching the currawong circle, and the next, in a flash, all is safe. I will learn to fire a gun, I think, they are the answer” (p. 25). In what other ways does Jake try to find safety?
15. Discuss the character of Lloyd. Who is he and what does he want? How does he affect Jake?
16. Why does Jake let Lloyd stay with her?
17. The hammer under the bed, the axe by the refrigerator, the gun in the cupboard, the walking stick by the door. Can these things protect Jake from what she fears?
18. When all is revealed at the end, from the truth behind her scars to her own responsibility in the affair, how does that fit in with the Jake you know already?
19. What is Jake most afraid of? The past? Otto? Guilt? Herself?
20. What do you think Jake is ultimately looking for?
A Conversation with Evie Wyld, Author of All the Birds, Singing
You play with time very craftily in this bookJake's story unfolds in chapters that rotate between past and present, with the past inching its way further and further back until we know how she came to be where she is today. How did you manage this, and what gave you the idea?
I was about half way through a first draft when I realised that I needed to trouble the story a bit. I'm always interested in different ways of storytelling, with pictures, with verse, documents, fake or real. For me playing with the structure is integral to the writing process. It's about telling the story in the best way possible, not about being deliberately complicated. I'm not sure that any one thing gave me the idea - part of writing is experimenting, and so it seemed to happen quite organically at first.
The setting of your novel is beautifulJake travels from the Australian outback to a sheep farm on an insular island off the coast of England. How did you choose these locations?
My mother is Australian, and so I've spent a lot of time in those sorts of spaces. I'm particularly interested in places that feel emptied of human life. The English landscape, though in some ways smaller, has a melancholy that I find incredibly haunting. It feels in places just like a Constable landscape, like the 20th century never happened. They are both landscapes I spent time in as a child, perhaps that has something to do with my nostalgia for them.
How did you land on the name "Jake" for your female protagonist? Does the rather masculine name for this tough and independent character indicate a degree of feminism in the novel?
I wanted a one syllable name - something solid. At school the popular, pretty girls with the hair always had names like Isabella - the more syllables the prettier. I wanted a character who had from the outset not quite fitted in. Being a feminist, I suppose feminism is within my writing, though it's not a conscious decision, it's just part of me. I don't try for messages in my writing though - I'm not trying to say who or what is right or wrong, I'm much more interested in the fact that people are not good or evil, but a complicated mixture of everything.
In addition to traveling many miles throughout the novel, Jake also goes on a more intimate journey of personal growth. Do you relate to Jake's painful passage into adulthood?
Sure - I think a lot of women would. There's this weird moment when you come to see all of the pressures put on you at that age. To be sexy, to want to have sex, but not to enjoy it. To be totally carefree but also to exist within a preciously designed frame. It leads to young women sleeping with people they don't necessarily feel attracted to, it leads to self harm and self loathing. I'm angry about my adolescence, but at the time I thought I was being the version of the powerful woman that I was supposed to be. It's a hard thing to talk about, but when I do I find that a lot of other women of my generation had the same or similar experience. I realise I'm slightly sidestepping the meat of the question, but that's a conversation to be had only after many drinks.
Isolation is a major theme in this bookJake is alone on her farm and alone in her fears. How did you manage to portray this sense of being alone so viscerally? Did it require your having to isolate yourself from the world while writing the book?
I have spent time alone, in a similar landscape. Though Jake is a million times braver than I am. I think if you've spent a night camping alone in some woods, you can get a pretty good impression of how differently your brain responds to the sounds and movements of the landscape you're in. I stayed in a tiny caravan in the woods for a week with two dogs for company, and a tree came down in the wind, flattening the fence between the neighbouring field and the woodland, and all the sheep flooded into the woods, crashing about at night, getting tangled in brambles and sending the dogs nuts. There were definitely moments in writing the book that I thought back to those nights.
There are many questions left unanswered at the end of the novel, but the ending is satisfying nonetheless. How do you know when you have finished telling your story?
It's a good question. I suppose it's when I feel some kind of connection for the main character. It's not a huge moment in many ways, but it's one that could lead, potentially to change in the characters' life. It might still all go wrong, but it might not. I have no desire to set in stone the outcome for the character - I think one of the joys of reading is to let the character live on in your own imagination, to wonder in a sense what they are up to now.
You run an independent bookshop in London. What is it like to take an active role in the publishing industry as both author and bookseller?
I get asked often if it changes the way I write, and I don't think it does. Writing perhaps changes the way I sell books though. I find it helpful to know how publishing works, though I try not to be interfering as much as possible - my publishers do an excellent job, they know what they're doing and I leave them to it.
Have you ever sheared a sheep?
I have not! But I have watched very closely as a professional got stuck in. I wouldn't want to damage or upset a sheep just to have an 'authentic experience'.
What's next for you?
I have a graphic memoir coming out with Jonathan Cape in 2015, which is very exciting, and which I'm working hard to finish at the moment. It's called Rodney Fox, I love you. Rodney Fox is a shark attack survivor who now is a huge fan of the shark. A friend, Joseph Sumner is doing the illustrations. And I'm just starting my third novel. It'd be nice to have some short stories published too, so I'm very lazily trying to collect some of those together.
Who have you discovered lately?
The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane - it's been out in Australia for a little while, but just published in the UK [and the U.S. -ed.]. Completely wonderful.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
All The Birds, Singing is the second novel by British-Australian author, Evie Wyld, and winner of the 2014 Miles Franklin Literary Award. The first narrative starts with Jake Whyte, currently living on an unnamed British island, finding a second of her sheep dead and mutilated, and wondering whether foxes, some other wildlife or the local teens are to blame. Jake’s isolated existence, with only her dog, Dog, and her herd of sheep for company, puzzles the locals. The second narrative starts some three years earlier, with Jake part of a sheep-shearing troupe in Western Australia. It seems that Jake is on the run from something or someone: just who is Otto? And why does Jake have scars on her back? What knowledge is it that another shearer tries to hold over her? The hints and clues will have the reader intrigued as to the events in Jake’s past that have led to her current situation. Astute readers will quickly realise that the events occurring in Australia are told in reverse order. With her evocative descriptions, Wyld sets her scenes, both the isolated, cold British island and the hot, dusty West Australian outback, with consummate ease. Her plot has twists that eventually reveal hidden depths and flaws in the prickly Jake the world is shown. While some of the subject matter can be quite confronting, there is also subtle humour contained in Wyld’s prose. A brilliant read.
Stayed up until 3:00 a.m. finishing this. The book drew me in and kept me interested.
Loved the book.... loved the ending.
I was curious where the author was going...but I am not sure she ever tied up the story
I read this book partially for all the great reviews. I liked the book until about halfway in and stuck with it because I thought she was going to tie everything together at the end. She did not! I disliked this book more than I have disliked any book in a long time! The ending of the book made me dislike Jake and it did not tie the story together.
I was pleasantly surprised with the book given the subject or sheep farming. I really enjoyed her writing style.
You get pulked into the story and bam! the story ends suddenly with no resolution to several mysterious plot lines. Its as though the authir got lazy and didnt feel like wtiting anymore snd just ended it mid story. highly irritating and .akes it a waste if money to purchase and a waste if time to read.
Interesting book and nicely written... until the end! I have so many questions!