Evie’s Wyld’s brooding novel, All the Birds, Singing is hard to let go of. A damp menace clings to the story from the very first line and draws the reader in as the main character Jake Whyte attempts to discover who or what is mutilating her sheep. At the same time we are sucked backwards to the Australian outback, to uncover Jake’s past and understand why she is living on an isolated British island – her only companion: a dog named Dog.
Wyld’s book recently won the Miles Franklin award, beating Tim Winton’s Eyrie, Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, and others, with its evocative prose. “Spare, but pitch perfect,” was how the judging panel described Wyld’s writing – “visceral and powerfully measured in tone.” But it’s the structure of All the Birds, Singing that also has me intrigued.
Wyld uses alternating chapters to move the story forwards on the windswept farm and backwards through the outback. The tense of the writing also alternates, with Wyld using the present tense for the flashbacks and the past tense for the rest of the story. The book leaves great gaps in the narrative, but compels the reader to find the source of Jake’s damaged emotional and physical state as well as the identity of the sheep killer.
Wyld apparently had intended to keep the narrative simple when she started this story, but found barriers were thrown up by her choice of writing in first person. She had to find a way to solve them. After writing 50,000 words she decided that reversing the chronology of Jake’s past was a better was of telling the story.
“I was quite reluctant to do it,” she says in an interview with the BBC. “It ended up being a maths problem. I had to make endless charts and work out where I was. I did confuse myself a lot, writing it.”
Wyld builds tension with the flashbacks that take us deeper into Jake’s past, and ultimately to the decision that changed everything. We are fed uncensored snapshots of an ugly side of Australia – in outback towns, on a fly-blown sheep property and above a greasy take-away shop, meeting a cast of troubled characters along the way. These scenes are contrasted with the boggy sheep farm where Jake has gone to escape her past. But even here she’s haunted by some kind of beast.
A maths problem has never been so darkly engaging.