On weekend mornings, I enjoy opening the window beside my writing desk and listening to bird songs while I sip a cup of coffee. I find it to be a calming experience. A chirping bird sounds so happy. Ever since I was a child, watching birds in flight has filled me with an almost dizzying sense of relaxation, of freedom, of positivity. In All the Birds, Singing however, birds are symbols of sorrow, of isolation, and of death. Despite such themes, All the Birds, Singing is one of the most enjoyable books I have read in a long time. The novel, the second from Evie Wyld and for which she earned the 2013 Encore Award for Best Second Novel, is elegant with a fascinating story and an intriguing lead character.
An ominous opening line sets the stage: “Another sheep, mangled and bled out, her innards not yet crusting and the vapours rising from her like a steamed pudding.” Whoa. What a great first sentence! This tone flows through the entire novel, infusing it with dread and unease. Even so, I found myself smiling often at the beauty of Wyld’s use of language and even laughing aloud as she mercifully injects moments of humor into the bleak story. Some of the situations in which Wyld’s characters find themselves are so real and so ridiculously human (humanly ridiculous?) that one cannot help but feel empathy, and thus laugh. Honestly, what does one shout at a charging sheep to frighten it away? Such lighthearted moments are brief, however, for the storm clouds roll in fast and the story takes another dark step. Like oranges in Coppola’s The Godfather, birds seem to always be there, warning of unpleasantness.
As much as a teenaged Jake feared her life would be mundane and ordinary, it seems to have been anything but. It has been far from a happy life, though. Jake Whyte, who sleeps with a hammer under her pillow, has suffered more than most people ever should. She was dealt a rotten hand, but was made the best of it anyway, exhibiting a survival instinct that demands respect. Throughout the novel, Jake expresses great empathy for animals. Just as cruelty to animals is often a warning sign that a person may possess psychopathic tendencies, might the opposite be true? Most humans have brought Jake nothing but trouble, but she recognizes the innocence and instinct of animal behavior. Despite hints throughout the story that she had done something awful in her past, it is her treatment of animals that informed me of her good nature.
Jake’s story is told in two chronologically divergent timelines: her present life moves forward, her history is told in reverse. As we get to know the adult Jake, forced to grow up far too early and bearing physical scars to mirror the emotional ones, alternate chapters march us backward in time giving us a look at her younger years and the events that led to her to her present place of mind. The promise of learning the true nature of Jake’s awful deed was a wonderfully effective carrot on a stick.
Whether we are in Jake’s present in the isolated English countryside or in Jake’s past in baked Australia, the setting is vibrant. In Australia, the heat is omnipresent. It dries the landscape and fries the flesh of the characters. Reading Wyld’s descriptions of the Australian desert, I could feel the moisture evaporate from my pores. My skin dried, my tongue swelled, and all I wanted was a gulp of cold water. When in England, it seems to always rain, a permanent chill in the air. I found myself wanting a shot of warming whiskey. The scenes in England felt so dreary, the sky so low and dark compared to the high, blue Australian sky. Both landscapes, as written by Wyld, are simultaneously beautiful as raw nature and dreadful as a human environment.
With All the Birds, Singing, Evie Wyld has leapt onto my list of authors to watch. I am pleased to say I received a copy of her debut novel After the Fire, A Still Small Voice (her titles are poetic, yes?) as a gift so I have more Evie Wyld in my future. I look forward to sitting with the book, steaming cup of coffee in hand as bird songs bespeaking of no ill omen at all drift through the open window.