Title: All the Birds, Singing
Author: Evie Wyld
Publisher: Random House Australia
Read: May 09-10, 2013
Who or what is watching Jake Whyte from the woods?
Jake Whyte is the sole resident of an old farmhouse on an unnamed island, a place of ceaseless rains and battering winds. It's just her, her untamed companion, Dog, and a flock of sheep. Which is how she wanted it to be. But something is coming for the sheep – every few nights it picks one off, leaves it in rags.
It could be anything. There are foxes in the woods, a strange boy and a strange man, rumours of an obscure, formidable beast. And there is Jake's unknown past, perhaps breaking into the present, a story hidden thousands of miles away and years ago, in a landscape of different colour and sound, a story held in the scars that stripe her back.
Set between Australia and a remote English island, All the Birds, Singing is the story of one how one woman's present comes from a terrible past. It is the second novel from the award-winning author of "After the Fire, A Still Small Voice".
All the Birds Singing is Australian fiction at its best – gritty, atmospheric and suspenseful, it represents a true gem of the genre.
Jake Whyte is a young woman living an isolated life on her recently purchased sheep farm on a remote English island. Scarred by a traumatic past she avoids human contact, preferring the company of her dog to that of other people. But there is an evil afoot, which kills her sheep at night and makes its malevolent presence felt in the dark, even invading Jake’s house. When an unexpected visitor arrives on Jake’s doorstep, she must weigh up her avoidance of human contact against her need for help to combat the unknown threat to herself and her lifestock.
All the Birds Singing is a dual time novel, starting with Jake’s life in England at the present time. The other part of the novel is cleverly constructed and offers snapshots of Jake’s troubled past in a backward chronological order – from the most recent to the very unfortunate event in Jake’s childhood which derailed her life and led to her current circumstances. This may sound confusing, and can often be disruptive to the storyline in other books, but Wyld’s storytelling is so accomplished that the unusual structure only adds to the suspense and character development. Whilst Jake’s present experiences form the main part of the mystery, her past slowly constructs the character of Jake and gradually reveals her life story. To the reader, the snapshots from Jake’s past feel like flipping through a photo album in reverse order, from the present-tense Jake who is too old for her years to the innocent young girl she once was.
Very much character driven, the novel centres around human relationships and our innate need for company, no matter how dysfunctional. On the dark side, there is Otto, whose motives are never fully revealed but carry sinister undertones which paint a picture of increasing threat and simmering violence, reflected also in the hostile environment Jake is trapped in. Revealing the escalation of threat in a backward fashion makes it all the more sinister and claustrophobic, watching a young Jake stumble into a terrible situation, knowing how it will all end.
Lloyd, on the other hand, offers a kind of redemption and hope to the story. Honest, guileless and with scars of his own, he appears just as Jake is most in need of help. Whilst their relationship remained an enigma to me, it also was the one which offered a way out of despair and made me close the book with a sense of hope for the future.
Wyld perfectly captures the harsh atmosphere of outback Australia and the struggle to survive in a hostile environment, which is often as unforgiving as its people. Jake is a survivor, and her struggles really touched my heart – even more so once the source of her fall from grace and loss of innocence were revealed.
As the setting changes from Australia to rural England, so does the novel’s language and overall atmosphere – from a gritty story of survival to a mystery with almost paranormal overtones. As the evil closes in on Jake’s present, I often reflected whether this presence was a true threat or a metaphor for the menacing shadows from the past following Jake to her new home. Wyld has a gift of creating suspense without the need for action or artificially constructed plots – instead, the haunting atmosphere and the unspoken things, the questions remaining, are the very details which kept me reading until late into the night, unable to tear myself away. This is a novel which would be perfect to read as part of a bookclub – it affected me so deeply that I was aching to discuss it with someone and hear their view on scenes and relationships which were left open to interpretation – like the earring in the barn (this is not a spoiler, only readers of the novel will know what I am talking about – wasn’t it the most sinister thing?).
I have not read Wyld’s first novel, After the Fire, but it is now very firmly on my tbr list.
All in all, I loved this novel and its haunting atmosphere will stay with me for some time to come. It is amongst the best I have read this year, and implants Wyld firmly as one very talented Australian writer I want to hear a lot more of in future.
A big thanks to the Reading Room and Random House Australia for supplying me with a free advance reading copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.
This novel forms part of my 2013 Australian Women Writers challenge, as well as the 2013 Monthly Keyword Challenge (keyword "bird").