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 rains and battering winds. Her disobedient collie, Dog, and a flock of sheep are her sole companions, which is how she wanted it to be. But every few nights something—or someone—picks off one of the sheep and sets off a new deep pulse of terror. There are foxes in the woods, a strange boy and a strange man, rumors of an obscure, formidable beast. But 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.
I picked up a copy of this book as a summer read on display at my local library, via Norwich Writers Centre summer reads book club. http://www.writerscentrenorwich.org.uk/yoursummerreads.aspx. I’m so glad that I did.
It’s about sheep and birds and a lot of animals, and all sorts of things you just wouldn’t expect. Who says a sheep farm can’t be exciting!
The story begins with the words, “Another sheep, mangled and bled out, her innards not yet crusting and the vapours rising from her like a steamed pudding.” What a way to begin, with those initial words I was instantly drawn in and my attention just didn’t waver.
Wyld tells us Jake’s current story in the past tense, and the story of her past in the present tense. An unusual device. Her past is catching up with her always there a menace that she can’t escape from. The tale begins in the past tense, in England on her sheep farm. To begin with I found the main protagonist, Jake Whyte, a shady character. Who is this person? Why has she bought a farm in this remote area of England? Her name sounds like a man’s name. She has a manly physique, she is no weakling, though there are hints at feminine aspects to her persona. She appears a lonely individual separated from the community in which she lives, unable or unwilling to participate. Her only companion is her dog, who is simply named Dog. This lady is not one for frills. She is a strong woman with a disturbing past, who carries the scars of that past on her back. No wonder she wants to stay hidden. Her only concession to human contact on her sheep farm in England is Don, and Don sold her the house and the land. Don regards her reluctance to engage with others as unnatural, and tries to encourage her to mix to integrate into the farming community, to find someone to share her life with, and to live a normal life.
Chapters alternate to reveal her past in Australia when she was working with a sheep shearing gang to her younger adolescent years when she made a terrible mistake that she is still paying for in the present. This earlier chapter of her life is unexpected, and shocking. No wonder she is running. She has the scars to show for it. In Australia she also has only one companion, no dog this time, a male on the sheep shearing gang. She is one woman among many male sheep shearers, yet she seems to fit in well. Gender lines blur.
In present day England something or somebody is violently killing her sheep. To begin with it she thinks it is kids but as the narrative unfolds this impression begins to change. It appears that her past is catching up on her and her poor sheep are being made to suffer for her misdeeds. What beast is tearing them apart? Is it the beast of her past rearing its ugly head?
Wyld uses several different animals within the narrative to suggest human characteristics, this is particularly evident in the portrayal of Kelly, her captor Otto’s dog that she is forced to live with for a time in Australia. Kelly torments Jake with her fierce loyalty to Otto, her captor.This novel is full to buzzing with all sorts of insects, birds, sheep, dogs, fish, oh and a pigeon to mention a few. A quote from the final chapter exemplifies this. “On the beach at low tide after a storm, the sharks that have washed up are the small ones that don’t need to be towed onto the sand spit first. They are just finned on the boats and plopped back into the drink….”
I can’t find much at all to criticise in Wyld’s book. It is wonderfully written, a stunningly clever book. My only slight niggle and it is very slight, I found it strange that she allowed a complete stranger to stay with her alone on her sheep farm in England. This seemed at odds with her reluctance to mix and trust her neighbours. Though perhaps this is a hint that she is prone to making impulsive decisions that can sometimes go badly, as in her past? Several reviewers have found fault with the ambiguous ending of the book. I found the ending a challenge I must say, but after much consideration, I thought it was an excellent ending. It was very thought-provoking. I’m not sure I would say the novel is about forgiveness, I think it is more about trust, doing the right thing, and letting go off the past so that you can allow another person into your life, to share life’s difficulties. But that’s just my impression of it! I read the final two chapters several times before I could come to an understanding and to some closure. It is a novel that makes you draw your own conclusions. All the Birds Singing is without doubt a memorable book that in its quiet way draws you into a narrative that is mysterious and intriguing. One read through may just not be enough!
My star rating – 4.5 stars
I would highly recommend it for readers of Literary Fiction, Mystery, and Contemporary Fiction.
Longlisted for the Bailey’s Womans prize for Fiction 2014. In 2013 Evie Wyld was named among Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists.
http://www.eviewyld.com – Take a look at her website to see all the lovely book covers for All The Birds Singing, they’re stunning.
Have you read All The Birds Singing? Do leave a comment I’d love to hear from you.
Bye for now,
Marje @ Kyrosmagica xx