Monday, December 29, 2014

Evie Wyld's All the Birds, Singing

by Joan

A few weeks ago my son sent me the New York Times Book Review’s list of notable books of 2014, mentioning a few books he particularly wanted to read (i.e. buy the poor college kid some books). I’d read a few of the titles listed and several others are on my TBR list. I picked up a few for him, knowing that while we were on vacation, I’d likely get to read one or two. He finished Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing in two days and I promptly picked it up and finished it just as quickly.

From the title and cover, you might think this is a bittersweet story about happy birds and country life. A light vacation read (even with the scary wolf). But you would be so very wrong.

From the book jacket:

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.

Jake’s back is ridged with scars but she has adapted to her loner lifestyle of shearing sheep and eating warmed-over stew. She keeps a hammer, crowbar and gun nearby, and has no idea if the someone or something watching her place is a fox, troubled kid, unidentified beast, or the stranger sleeping off a drunk in her barn. Well-muscled and armed, she’s not about to be taken down by any of them.

The story is told in alternating timelines, the present in linear fashion, the past in reverse, minute by tragic minute, doling out sparse details in her Australian homeland. In her most immediate past, she’s the only female on a shearing crew, earning one man’s ire for showing him up in front of the others, including his best mate, her boyfriend. But he’s learned she’s on the run and threatens to reveal her unless she shows him “a little bit of affection.” She decks him and runs. And so we are thrown back to another past, and then another, until the one which seemed so horrible pages ago was in fact better than the one we read next.

This novel is disturbing and addicting, raw and shocking in its delivery of human and animal suffering. Wyld’s characters are not all good or all evil, but as multilayered as the craggy and weathered landscape. Her prose is spare, yet honest and true.

“Dog pranced next to me with a light in his eyes that meant killing, and I tried to keep the atmosphere mellow and not like the disposal of a tame bird that I’d murdered. It was not a beautiful beach for a burial at sea. A skin of seaweed had washed up on the rocks and jumped with sea lice. Black rocks rose all around it so that if you didn’t know your path back up, you could feel trapped. There was no accounting for the places the English took their children.”

Published by Pantheon Books, this novel will appeal to readers of Sarah Stonich’s Shelter

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