All the Birds, Singing
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.