All The Birds, Singing, by Evie Wyld, Jonathan Cape, RRP£16.99, 240 pages
From Shakespeare to AL Kennedy and Jonathan Swift to John Fowles, writers have long been drawn to islands: microcosms of a wider world yet entire unto themselves, featuring a limited cast of characters and governed by their own rules – which may be subtly different from those at work on the mainland. Novels and islands are, in a way, the world writ small.
Evie Wyld’s second novel, All The Birds, Singing, moves between a remote British island and the vastness of Wyld’s childhood country, Australia – and manages to make them both seem potentially isolating environments. Jake, a young, powerfully built Australian woman, is farming sheep on the island with only a dog (named Dog) for company. Jake is tall, taciturn – and terrified, not just of the creature that seems to be picking off her sheep one by one (or is it?) but of whatever it is in her past that has driven her to a rainswept island in the Atlantic where she shuns her few neighbours.
This is a past that the scenes set in Australia slowly, horrifyingly, reveal. And so, like the stolen truck she guns through the outback, the plot coughs and roars into life almost from the first page.
Wyld’s debut novel, After The Fire, A Still Small Voice (2009), won the John Llewellyn Rhys prize, and in April this year she was named as one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists. It’s not hard to see why Wyld is so feted: All The Birds, Singing is extraordinarily accomplished, one of those books that tears around in your cerebellum like a dark firework, and which, upon finishing, you immediately want to pick up again.
Part of the reason for this novel’s power lies in its structure, and the way that it allows information to be revealed. The rainswept, present-day narrative, in which Jake’s sheep are being killed and in which her almost total solitude is slowly eroded by a hapless visitor to the island called Lloyd, is interrupted by glimpses of her past. We see her working on an isolated shearing station in Boonderie; the period she spent living on a remote outback farm with a man called Otto; and eventually her late childhood, and what came afterwards.
In these flashbacks, which we see in the present tense – just like dreams and nightmares – the reasons for Jake’s present-day terror both expand and recede; the effect is of something hideous escaping down a hall of mirrors, eluding you until the very last moments when its horror – and ultimately, its banality – is revealed.
If this sounds tricksy, it isn’t: Wyld imbues her lead character with such a steady presence that what in other hands would be clumsy flashbacks become, here, the effect of Jake’s own, tortured memory. We see things this way not because a rather arch narrator is holding back on information, but because Jake herself cannot bear to revisit her past – yet cannot escape from it, either: “I walk down the corridor of my brain and don’t even look at the doors either side,” she says, as she falls asleep. She doesn’t look; but neither can she escape memory’s confines.
Yet for all Jake’s authenticity – and despite the fact that the book is written in the first person – she remains unknowable. She is reticent; not just in her reluctant conversations with Lloyd (who is comically quixotic and scared of sheep), and not just when talking to Otto, or the shearers back in Boonderie; she is reticent as a narrator, too. Until we tunnel back to her time as a teenager we learn very little of her feelings or interior life; it is as though the habit of self-reflection has been stifled in Jake, so that what is reported, instead, are her physical reactions: “I hear someone cough, and I snap around, my heart barrelling about inside me; my eyes dart to the hammer underneath the bed.”
Jake’s body still lives the truth of what has happened to her, although she does not want to remember it. We experience her world viscerally, kinetically, and that makes the two scenes in which she hears something inside her bothy among the most terrifying you’re ever likely to read. Her economy as a narrator also creates a kind of distance, for instance in the scenes with Otto, which guards against melodrama. It also leaves a space into which our own, far more horrifying, realisations can creep.
Wyld uses recurring images and phrases throughout the book, making it easier to knit its two very different locations together as realities experienced by the same person, and also helping her fractured narrative to cohere. For all its darknesses All The Birds, Singing gleams with humour and kindness, moments of humanity that redeem almost everyone in the book. As Jake comes to see, no man – or woman – can be an island forever, and the opportunity for redemption is part of what it is to be human: both granting it, and allowing it to be granted in turn.
Melissa Harrison is author of ‘Clay’ (Bloomsbury)