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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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit