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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A hatchet job on the Daily Mail: Peter Wilby reviews Mail Men

Peter Wilby on Adrian Addison’s expletive-strewn history of the Daily Mail.

The Ukip leader Paul Nuttall recently claimed that he was among the crowd at the Hillsborough football stadium disaster in 1989 and that he lost close personal friends there, statements which suggest, at best, a flexible relationship with the truth. David English, the Daily Mail editor from 1971 to 1992, went one better. He claimed to have been in Dallas in November 1963 on the day John F Kennedy was assassinated. He was, he told Mail readers 25 years later, “part of the inner press circle which the Kennedys courted so assiduously” and: “We lived and travelled well, we President’s men . . . in brand new special planes.” In Dallas, he “witnessed the whole unbelievable scenario”. In fact, English, then based in New York for the Daily Express, was 1,600 miles away having a coffee break near his office. Adrian Addison’s riotously entertaining book is full of similar stories.

The present editor, Paul Dacre, has never been caught out in such flamboyant untruths. Yet, as Addison explains, the very appearance of the Daily Mail is based on a more subtle lie. Flick through its “human interest” features and you find “typical” Britons talking about their experience of relationships, crime, hospitals, schools, and so on. “Typical” in the Mail’s world means Mail readers as envisaged by its editor – white and middle class, not too fat or too thin, with smart but sensible clothes, hair and shoes, and free of tattoos and nose rings. A story does not, as editors say, “work” unless a picture shows the subjects conforming to this stereotype. If they don’t, make-up artists and hair stylists are despat­ched along with the correct clothing.

Addison, a BBC journalist for much of his career, has experience of tabloid journalism, though not at the Mail. Well over half his book is devoted to the editorships of English and his direct successor, Dacre, with the Mail’s first 75 years – including the familiar but still shocking story of its proprietor’s admiration for Hitler in the 1930s – dismissed in just 150 pages. The paper’s Sunday sister, launched in 1982, is mentioned only briefly.

In many respects, the book is a hatchet job. Dacre emerges, to quote Stephen Fry, as “just about as loathsome, self-regarding, morally putrid, vengeful and disgusting a man as it is possible to be”; English comes out very slightly better, thanks to personal charm and lavish parties; and the Mail Online’s publisher, Martin Clarke, who gets a chapter to himself, is portrayed as a cross between Vlad the Impaler and Fred West, redeemed, like Dacre, by demonic energy and undeniable success in attracting readers.

Like a good tabloid editor, Addison varies the tone, giving us occasional tear-jerking passages to show that even Mail editors have a human side. English befriends an ­office messenger boy, promises to find him a job in journalism if he gets an A-level in English, and proves as good as his word. Dacre, shy and socially clumsy, summons a features editor who had said the previous night, “You are mad, you know, Paul,” and asks, “I’m not really mad, am I?” Addison even deploys that old tabloid staple, the faithful, prescient dog. It belonged to Vere Harmsworth, the 3rd Viscount Rothermere and fourth Mail proprietor, who died in 1998 just 12 weeks after English, some said of a broken heart because the two had become so close. The day that Harmsworth, tax-exiled in France, was leaving home for London, where a heart attack killed him, his dog Ryu-ma refused to accompany the master to the airport in the chauffeur-driven car as it usually did.

The Harmsworths command a degree of admiration from many journalists. Of all the great newspaper dynasties – the Beaverbrooks, the Astors, the Berrys – they alone have stayed the course. The present proprietor, Jonathan Harmsworth, the 4th Viscount Rothermere, is the great-great-nephew of Alfred (“Sunny”) Harmsworth, who co-founded the paper in 1896. The Mail’s masthead hasn’t changed in 121 years, nor have several other things. Just as Sunny had only one Daily Mail editor until his death in 1922, Jonathan sticks by Dacre, allowing him to get on with his fanatical Brexiteering despite being a Remain sympathiser himself. So, too, did his father allow Dacre to denounce Tony Blair while he himself moved to the Labour benches in the House of Lords. Again like Sunny and Vere, Jonathan keeps accountants at arm’s length, giving the editor such generous budgets that the Mail scraps roughly two-thirds of the features it commissions yet still pays higher “kill” fees for them than other papers pay for the articles they print.

Other aspects of the Harmsworth legacy are less admirable. Most papers worried about the militarisation of Germany in the years before the First World War but, Addison writes, the Mail “raged”. Today, it is rage against immigrants, liberals, Greens, benefit claimants, human rights lawyers, the EU, overseas aid and a host of individuals from Polly Toynbee to Gary Lineker that oozes from almost every paragraph of the paper.

Many among what Dacre calls “the liberal elite” will find that Addison has written the exposé of the Mail that they always wanted to read. The inside story, with its unexpur­gated f***s and c***s, is as bad as you thought it was. But remember: the paper sells about 1.5 million copies a day, second only to the Sun. Its faults and virtues (there are some of the latter) owe nothing to marketing constructs, the proprietor’s business interests, party loyalties or anything other than the editor’s judgement as to what people will read. Denounce it by all means, but remember that millions of Britons love it.

Peter Wilby was the editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the NS from 1998 to 2005

Mail Men: The Story of the Daily Mail - the Paper that Divided and Conquered Britain by Adrian Addison is published by Oneworld (336pp, £20)

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 16 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit and the break-up of Britain