Evie Wyld's All the Birds, Singing is a work of ruthless beauty
In her second novel, Evie Wyld explores loneliness and stunted relationships in a narrative that flashes between two unwelcoming landscapes: hot, arid Australia and a small, wet British island. Both prove equally unnerving in this tour de force of literary skill, writes Lucy Scholes
Set against the backdrop of the unforgiving Australian bush, After the Fire was a novel about men who couldn't talk to each other; their stunted relationships, internalised trauma and deep loneliness. Here, in her second novel, All the Birds, Singing, Wyld hunkers down in the same familiar emotional terrain, though this time her protagonist is female - not that you'd guess it from her name, Jake Whyte - and the setting switches between the dry, dusty Australia of Jake's youth and the windy, wet wilds of the small unnamed British island where she's now living.
The novel opens like a punch to the gut with the image of a freshly slain sheep, "mangled and bled out, her innards not yet crusting and vapours rising from her like a steamed pudding". Everything you need to know about Wyld's writing is here in this first line - its visceral, fierce and starkly elegant. The sheep is one of Jake's flock, the second she's found dead in the last month, though about what or who is terrorising her animals, she's unsure: is it a fox, bored local teenagers in search of creepy kicks, or something altogether more sinister? As a single female foreigner living and working with these animals all by herself, Jake hasn't exactly endeared herself to the locals on the island. "Young women like yourself ought to be with someone. Cheers you right up," chides the village constable, more focused on her isolation than the problem of the sheep killer she brings him; and Don, the farmer from whom she leases her cottage and land, keeps telling her to take herself off "down the pub, make some friends, that'll stop you feeling lonely". Loneliness, however, isn't Jake's problem. She's clearly had enough company to last her a lifetime; she now sleeps with a hammer under her pillow, "just as a comforter". When fate sends Lloyd, a solitary drifter, her way, it's not due to any sense of responsibility or kindness that Jake puts him up for a few days, it's more an act of desperation for fear of what's out there in the woods, watching and waiting for her and her animals.
Jake's clearly got a past, and not a particularly happy or straightforward one at that. Through a steady series of flashback chapters that alternate with those set in the present, we slowly piece together the sad sequence of events that brought Jake to the island and made her the restless, troubled woman she is today.
The first of these transports us back to her roustabout days on a sheep farm in Boodarie, Western Australia. It's early evening and she's in a lean-to shower, washing off the dirt and dust of a hard, hot day's shearing. "I know about you," whispers someone as a single eye appears in a punched-out knot in the grain of the wood pallet wall, "You don't fool me; I know about you and what you've done." Soon we learn that her back is crisscrossed with scars, "pinked over enough to look like they happened in a past that can be left alone", the remnants of a life she now keeps "at arm's length".
Then we learn she spent time as a working girl, swopping one form of captivity for another when she goes to live with one of her clients, Otto, on his isolated, run-down homestead, locked in her room at night, guarded by Kelly, his evil dog, by day. With these tormentors, it's easy to understand why Jake is haunted by her past, as well as to assume her a victim of circumstance, but trace her story back to the very beginning and it eventually becomes clear, though Wyld is too subtle a storyteller to ever explicitly confirm this, that the real darkness is inside Jake herself.
Her landlord, Don, has a disturbed son, a pyromaniac called Samson. "He will have seen lots of things, though you have to pick your way between choosing what ones are real," Don tells Jake, warning her to pay little heed to the young man. "I haven't got the hang of that, and I don't think I've got the time left in me to sort the real from the daydreams." The same could be said of Jake herself, though the apparitions that plague her are of an altogether more nightmarish quality.
The novel is infused with this sense of threat from the very first page. Bar the helpless sheep and Jake's four-legged companion, Dog, the hordes of other animals that populate the pages of the book are all menacingly creepy.
The murder of crows, "their beaks shining, strutting and rasping", that greedily surround the sheep carcass in the opening paragraph; the fox "being made love to", that shrieks in the woods at night; "slinking" suspicious Kelly, with her "cloudy eyes and a look of a snake about her"; and, of course, the glowing-eyed creature Jake believes skulks in the woods around her farm, "waiting and watching and ready to swoop".
Wyld depicts nature in all its bloody, brutal glory, within which the flora and fauna, and even the landscapes, are often more palpitatingly alive than her struggling human protagonists. It's not just the locals who are wary of her; the very topography itself seems to distrust her: "The way the land seemed to be watching me, feeling my foreignness in it, holding its breath until I passed by."
Wyld moves seamlessly between the suffocating temperature of the outback and the bitter, bone-chilling, wet winter weather. One minute we're beside Jake roasting in the "solid heat" of the tin shearing shack, the air full of "fat and damp" flies which, "when they land around your mouth you feel like you've been kissed by something dead", the next we can feel the way her skin "stung", and her nostrils and the back of her throat "prickled", with the icy cold.
We move between the "wide red spaces" of the Outback where there's "nothing to see" apart from "some black hills long and far in the distance, a backdrop for the desert", to the dark, claustrophobic bramble-filled undergrowth and sheer black rock-faced cliffs of a windswept coast. What could have been the classic difficult and disappointing second novel is actually a tour de force reaffirming Wyld's considerable skill. All the Birds, Singing is a work of rare and ruthless beauty.
Lucy Scholes is a freelance journalist who lives in London.
Updated: July 13, 2013 04:00 AM