“Another sheep, mangled and bled out, her innards not yet crusting and the vapours rising from her like a steamed pudding”: Evie Wyld’s placidly foreboding second novel (follow-up to the well-received After the Fire, A Still Small Voice) starts out like a CSI for the sheep-farming set. Two of Jake Whyte’s sheep have been killed inside a month, and though she wonders aloud if it’s the work of local kids her tearful edginess seems all out of proportion. Why, for instance, is she sleeping with a hammer under her pillow?
What All The Birds, Singing becomes, however, is something less straightforwardly puzzle-like and more compellingly psychological, even metaphysical at times. Jake, who despite her boyish name and build is a young woman, came to her remote farm on an unnamed English island three years previously from Australia (the same migratory path followed by London-based Wyld, named in 2013 as one of Granta’s 20 best young British novelists) with a back full of mysterious scars. Jake’s only neighbor and friend, Don, urges her to stop by the local pub lest the locals take her solitariness for a snub.
But Jake doesn’t want to be known, or even found. The reason for this lies in a grim backstory that Wyld presents to us in reverse, by inching retrospective degrees. Estranged from her family for unknown reasons, we discover that Jake prostituted herself as a teen before accepting an invitation to live on the farm of a widowed client named Otto (a “kind, lonely old man” who “only ever wants it in the usual way”).
Once ensconced at the farm though, Jake lives in a state of barless captivity. Animals play important roles in the novel, mirroring their human counterparts as companions, predators, objects of sacrifice or accomplices. Impervious to the scraps of food and ear scratches Jake tries to bribe him with, Otto’s snarling dog Kelly thus functions as his master’s second set of eyes. Adding to the general aura of dread, Jake finds about the farm disconcerting remnants of Otto’s dead wife: “I think about the shoe under the house. The earring in the woolshed. The things Kelly finds to eat in the tall dry grass.”
Jake eventually escapes to a sheep station on the coast, where she uses the shearing skills she acquired at Otto’s to tough it out as the station’s only female roustabout. When one of the workers tries to bribe her for sex on the grounds of knowing about her past, however, she flees again, this time for England.
Jake’s situation, we will learn, is more than a clear-cut case of victimhood. And Wyld’s expectations-defying treatment of her male characters contributes significantly to the novel’s effectiveness. A case in point is an intense scene where Jake observes Otto shearing a sheep: “When he has her pinned on the boards, a strange gentleness comes over him, I can see it in his face. It’s like how he looks at me when we screw.”
Jake eventually finds an ally and friend in Lloyd, a man suffering in the aftermath of undisclosed personal loss, whom she finds sleeping in her woodshed one day. (In this and several other plot points, the novel bears an uncanny resemblance to Dutch writer Gerbrand Bakker’s similarly excellent The Detour, which appeared in English last year.)
The puzzle to be solved is what got Jake into the position of having to sell herself in the first place. Abuse would seem a likely culprit, but would someone who’d been abused keep calling her family, as Jake does, just to hear their voices on the other end of the line? The novel’s more equivocal aspect is what the mysterious beast lurking on the periphery of Jake’s property is—or means.
The clues Wyld leaves us are subtle enough that they only spring into view once we’ve reached the very end, like heat applied to a lemon juice ink. This is a powerful, sure-footed effort by a formidable young talent.
—Emily Donaldson is a freelance critic and editor