All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld: A novel like crisply folded origami, intricate and well made

Claire Lowdon on the humble and bold second novel from Granta's "Best Young British Novelist" Evie Wyld.

All the Birds, Singing
Evie Wyld
Jonathan Cape, 240pp, £16.99

“I had a funny feeling sometimes, as if I had been stamped and posted and they were waiting for me to be delivered at an important address. I may contain unusual information,” says Charlie Citrine in Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift. Evie Wyld, one of Granta’s “best of young British novelists 2013”, knows all about the value of unusual information – how vital it is to fiction. Her first novel, After the Fire, a Still Small Voice (2009), laid out the arcana of a Sydney cake shop, a busy marina and an Australian conscript’s experience of Vietnam. In All the Birds, Singing, the specialist subject is sheep-farming. It contains a huge arsenal of research that Wyld deploys expertly without fanfare.

Then there is the Australian landscape, which provides the backdrop to much of Wyld’s fiction – not unique information, perhaps, but unusual if you are British and rarely have to think about poisonous spiders or the sun. Although the prose never dazzles, Wyld writes landscape well. She cannily plays to her strengths, relying on sheer volume of detail and the evocative power of unfamiliar vocabulary (Utes, huntsman spiders, nudibranchs, goannas, and so on).

This is her modus operandi: patience, good craftsmanship, precision. Both her novels feel like crisply folded origami, intricate and well made. They employ the same structure, with two narrative strands developed in alternating chapters. In After the Fire, one story follows a father, the other his son. All the Birds, Singing introduces a variation. We are reading the story of Jake Whyte as told by herself. In one strand, Jake is a solitary sheep farmer on an unnamed British island; but in the alternate chapters she tells us the story of her young life in Australia – backwards.

So, we have two parts of the same narrative, told in opposite directions. It soon becomes clear that at the end of the backwards story – really the beginning – there will be trauma. There are terrible scars on Jake’s back but we don’t know how she got them. When another character wonders about them, she lies. We know because she tells us. “‘Was it a customer?’ he asks and I nod, letting the lie set in immediately.” Jake is never an unreliable narrator, just a rather unforthcoming one.

Wyld is at her best when exploiting the possibilities of this unusual structure. Jakein- the-present wants to forget her past: as she moves around her island sheep farm, we rarely hear her thinking about life in Australia. Yet the past keeps repeating for her like a mackerel supper. On page six, on the island, we see her checking her muscle tone. “It was still there even if I hadn’t sheared in months. Strong lady.” “Strong lady” is out of register somehow – and why is it italicised? We won’t understand until page 47, when, in the other narrative, years earlier, a boyfriend (with whomshe was briefly happy) calls her “strong lady” affectionately. On page six, then, it is a memory that surfaces unbidden, presumably painful in its sweetness. This effect is employed multiple times, without explanation. It is subtly, delicately done, as is Jake’s transition, in the backwards narrative, from experience to innocence.

The present-day plot line contains a mystery, too: something is killing Jake’s sheep, brutally. Foxes and local teenagers are discounted, pointing towards a more sinister solution. Both storylines – indeed, both novels – consist of inaction punctuated by bursts of violence. “I made my coffee and drank it looking at the wall. After some time had passed, I laid out my paperwork on the kitchen table and worked through it.” This kind of writing is only possible when underpinned by suspense. In this sense, All the Birds, Singing shares a dynamic with horror, although it is much more muted, much more tasteful.

Writing about nothing much happening is bold and difficult. Wyld mostly succeeds. Yet “tasteful” is not an unequivocal positive. It includes an implication that little is being risked, that rules are being adhered to. There are moments of real beauty: “Greg’s sheep are sleek and clean with no grazes, like they’ve been buttered.” She writes particularly well – bravely, clearly – about sex. “His cock hangs in that in-between state like the end of it is attached to a thread.” But there is also a lot of bricklaying: thick blankets of silence, legs like tree trunks, sweat on a face in pearls. “He made a pot and took it to the kitchen table and there was a small spillage, just a splash. He got two mugs. He placed the sugar on the table with a spoon and sat down.” Nothing is wrong here. Good foundations, perfect pointing. But it isn’t the Sistine Chapel.

A kookaburra inspects the Cattana Wetlands in Cairns, Australia. Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 01 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Brazil erupts

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Beware of tea: the cuppa has started wars and ruined lives

. . . and it once led F Scott Fitzgerald to humiliate himself.

A drink sustains me – one that steams companionably as I write. It is hot, amber and fragranced differently from any wine; nor does it have wine’s capacity to soften and blur. I’ve never understood how the great drunks of literature, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and their like, ever put anything on the page more worthwhile than a self-involved howl, though even Hemingway apparently finished the day’s writing before beginning the day’s drinking.

Tea is more kindly, or so I’d always thought. Those aromatic leaves, black or green, rolled and dried and oxidised, have some of wine’s artistry but none of its danger. Even their exoticism has waned, from a Chinese rarity (“froth of the liquid jade”), for which 17th-century English traders were made to pay in solid silver, to a product that can be found dirt cheap on supermarket shelves.

There are even home-grown teas now. The Tregothnan estate in Cornwall has supplemented its ornamental rhododendrons and camellias with their relative camellia sinensis, the tea plant, while Dalreoch in the Scottish Highlands grows a white (that is, lightly oxidised) tea, which is smoked using wood from the surrounding birch plantations. Tellingly, this local version is priced as steeply as the imported rarity once was.

I enjoy a simple, solitary mug, but I also appreciate communal tea-drinking – the delicate tea warmed with water at 85°C (a little higher for sturdier black blends), the teapot and china, the pourer volunteering to be “mother”, as if this were a liquid that could nurture. But in reality, tea is not so gentle.

Those long-ago English traders disliked haemorrhaging silver, so they started exporting opium to China from India and paying with that. This was a fabulous success, unless you happened to be Chinese. In 1839, a commissioner attempted to clamp down on the illegal and harmful trade, and the result was the Opium Wars, which the Chinese lost. “Gunboat diplomacy” – a phrase that surely constitutes froth of a different kind – won England a great deal of silver, a 150-year lease on Hong Kong and an open tea market. China received a potful of humiliation that may eventually have helped spark the Communist Revolution. As many of us have recently realised, there is nothing like economic mortification to galvanise a nation to kick its leaders.

Later, the tea bush was planted in India, Ceylon and elsewhere, and the fragrant but bitter brew for the upper classes became a ubiquitous fuel. But not an entirely sweet one: just as the opium trade ensured our tea’s arrival in the pot, the slave trade sweetened it in the cup. Even today, conditions for tea workers in places such as Assam in north-east India are often appalling.

Scott Fitzgerald also had tea trouble. When invited round by Edith Wharton, he frothed the liquid jade so assiduously with booze beforehand and risqué conversation during (a story about an American tourist couple staying unawares in a Paris bordello) that he was nearly as badly humiliated as those 19th-century Chinese. Wharton, unshocked, merely wondered aloud what the couple had done in the bordello and afterwards pronounced the entire occasion “awful”.

Some would blame his alcoholic preliminaries, but I’m not so sure. Tea has started wars and ruined lives; we should be wary of its consolations. On that sober note, I reach for the corkscrew and allow the subject to drive me softly, beguilingly, to drink.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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