Another sheep, mangled and bled out, her innards not yet crusting and the vapours rising from her like a steamed pudding. Crows, their beaks shining, strutting and rasping, and when I waved my stick they flew to the trees and watched, flaring out their wings, singing, if you could all it that. I shoved my boot in Dog's face to stop him from taking a string of her away with him as a souvenir, and he kept close by my side as I wheeled the carcass out of the field and down into the woolshed. (p. 9 iPad iBooks e-edition)
The graphic description of a disembowled sheep in the opening scene of Evie Wyld's second novel, All the Birds, Singing, immediately warns readers that this will not be a safe, comfortable read. Yet it is not a dark, brutal tale as well, or at least those elements do not predominant the narrative. It is something in-between, certainly a mystery about the life of a young Australian woman who has come to raise sheep alone on a remote English island, but what sort of mystery it is takes the course of the novel to explore.
Jake Whyte, the woman at the heart of this mystery, narrates her tale in alternating present-past chapters that bifurcate as the odd chapters move forward in narrative time and the even go further back into Jake's past. Wyld carefully doles out information in these chapters, often by first making a passing reference to something in the "present," say an odd group of scars or Jake's reticence, before revealing the origins of those in a "past" chapter, yet with another mystery that is then alluded to in the "present." If done in a careless, ham-fisted manner, this drawing out of crucial information can be irritating to readers, but for almost the entire time, Wyld manages to walk that tightrope between revelation and concealment without slipping into a trite narrative or a too-opaque one.
One way that Wyld manages to keep both sections vibrant is by making them distinct and yet possess reverberations of each other. The "present" Jake is taciturn in her scant dealings with her neighbors; she wants to find who (or what) the culprit is behind two of her sheep dying and while she makes the acquaintance with a local drifter, not much is shared. She distrusts all around her and as she recounts the "present" investigation, her thoughts and speech slip into the past, as if it were something already passing through her mind to join the chorus of prior events. The "past" chapters, however, are constructed differently, with a younger Jake utilizing a present-tense, more metaphor-rich narrative style to describe what transpires in her life. Below, presented without identifying contextual descriptions, is a conversation that another has with Jake. It is a conversation that is crucial for the events that lead to her eventual arrival on the island and it hints at some of what Jake has already experienced and how that has affected her:
"Just makes it dangerous for the rest of us – giving these arseholes the idea in the first place, I mean fuck. No respect, no thought about the future. They don't try to educate themselves, they don't care where they're livin'." She sucks hard on her Holiday. "Fuck, they don't even care if they wake up in the morning. Well, that's where it gets you" – she slaps her thigh, hard – "throttled and fucked and stuffed in the back of a car." She drains her tea and starts to unscrew the bottle again, but midway through her face loses its hardness and crumples, her mouth bowing out at the sides like a child. "Christ," she says, though no tears come; she catches her breath and holds her palm to her chest. "She's just a kid." A high-pitched sound escapes from somewhere deep in her throat and I take the bottle out of her hand, put my hand in its place and sit there until she can breathe again. She pulls it together with a long sniff and looks in silence at the space over my shoulder. "We're not like that," she says. "We've got options – we're smart. Right? RIGHT?" She shouts a little and I nod. She swallows. "We're not dependent on this. It's a life choice." I nod after every statement. She looks at me. "You get the chance and you go," she says. "Opportunity is waiting around every corner." So is death, I think, but I don't say it out loud. (Ch. 18, pp. 213-214)
What strikes me about this quote is how vibrant it feels. Two women, with something dreadful happening near them, convinced, even if half-heartedly, that such a thing will not happen to them, that they possess some control over their situations. This is important to keep in mind, as this attitude differs somewhat from the distrusting, aloof persona that Jake shows on the island. But not completely, however. Even in early scenes such as her visit to the local police station to report the damage and the officer's responding condescending remark about how her nerves are having her see wild animals instead of the likely youth culprits, Jake's strength of character shines through, albeit in a more muted fashion in the "present" chapters. "How has she changed in attitude?" is what I first asked. Then as I read on and learned more of her backstory, that question shifted to "How did she manage to maintain this strength of character in the face of such ordeals?" It is a testament to Wyld's talent as a character-developer that this shift in character feels organic even when the reader is confronted with alternating times and places in which Jake acts in different ways to certain events.
The concluding chapters, those that see Jake confront whatever/whoever it is that is killing her sheep and the sources of her prior sufferings, tie together expertly these mysteries. We see the resiliency of Jake's character not because we are told a backstory that leads into the present events, but rather in the actions of both past/present chapters, we experience through her eyes those events and the fact that Wyld doles these out in piecemeal fashion makes the reader more eager to catch another glimpse of this character and her eventual life. This leads to an anticipatory, more active reading experience for the reader, with a payoff that is rewarding. All the Birds, Singing is an outstanding novel, one that makes me want to read more of Wyld's writing. Very highly recommended.