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Book review: All The Birds, Singing, By Evie Wyld
In this lush novel's ruined idyll, a curse has settled on both human and wild life. What can lift it?
Friday 28 June 2013
Thriller, beast-fable and fantasy, Evie Wyld's second novel is a sparky, dark yarn set in a georgic world of sheep husbandry where things have gone spectacularly awry. A double narrative runs between an unnamed island off the British coast and prior action in Australia. All the Birds, Singing opens with the discovery of a sheep "mangled and bled out, her innards not yet crusting and the vapours rising from her like a steamed pudding". Crows gather around this feast, "singing, if you could call it that".
Jake (an honorary bloke in a blokes' world) tends her flock on an island of unforgiving weather. In flight from some heinous transgression, the exile lives in fear of retribution. Initial confusion as to Jake's gender may be compounded by the narrative's oscillation. The Australian chapters backtrack through afflictions, finally revealing an original trauma.
On the level of technical experiment, Wyld is a nonpareil. If the exuberantly inventive surface is sometimes all there is, and layers of obscene horror are unrelieved, Wyld's image-making facility is as brilliant as the quality of her pity. I was reminded of Daniel Woodrell's Winter's Bone in the characterisation of the resourceful central character in a hostile male world.
The novel's world teems with animal life, caught in the jaws of a bloody system. Jake fears that some monstrous beast is stalking her, picking off her sheep. Wyld ratchets up terror by tricks of style that animalise the inanimate world. Ingenious stylistic virtuosity helps make the endlessly violent plot readable.
Noise from the stove "bleats out"; gothic night bangings have Jake leaping up on the bed, where she "lowed like a bull". Jake handles buzzard pellets, "like compact animals themselves", a dung of digested and reassembled bones she fidgets to powder in her pockets. A pearl ear-ring "sits on my palm like a dead beetle". Flies drink from the corners of her eyes.
The human crime against creaturely life focuses Jake's guilt. In Australia, escaping her abuser (an abuse narrated in noxious detail), her truck accidentally strikes a kangaroo which vaults "like I've made it into a different creature by hitting it". Jake has to finish her off with a crowbar. Perhaps the deepest subject of All the Birds, Singing and one worthy of pastoral elegy, or the bleakest georgic, is the openness of sentient creatures to betrayal and death – and the power of the damaged human animal both to inflict and sustain it.
Male violence toward women is another strand, hardly ameliorated by the presence of Lloyd, a gentle, alcoholic stranger, who allows the author to bolt on a tragic-comic conclusion. If, on the narrative level, Wyld's novel has an artificial and generic feel, poetry of wit, pity and verbal virtuosity enlivens and deepens it.
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