In this neo-gothic pastorale, something or someone is brutally killing Jake Whyte’s sheep and prowling around and through her house at night. Jake lives on a remote, bleak English island, her closest companions her dog (named Dog) and the sheep she farms.
I feel the pull of being alone, of answering to no one, the safety of being unknown and far away.
We first meet Jake as she discovers yet another of her ewes ‘mangled and bled out’ with no solid clues pointing to what has done the damage – is it human, animal or some mythical beast? With lambing time fast approaching, it’s imperative she finds out.
At this point, we, like many people she has encountered, including her neighbour Don, know very little about her, so that far from being a fully formed character, she is a very faint sketch posing many unanswered questions, leaving us guessing, dying to know.
Stupid to have become so comfortable. The fridge hummed back in agreement. Stupid to think it wouldn’t all fall to shit. That feeling I’d had when I first saw the cottage, squat and white like a chalk pebble at the black foot of the downs, the safety of having no one nearby to peer in at me – that felt like an idiot’s lifetime ago. I felt at the side of the fridge for the axe handle.
As we step further into her world, we begin to understand that Jake’s story will be revealed to us gradually, almost teasingly, unwinding through two alternating narratives involving her present life in England and her past life in Australia, where she was born, and where she once worked as a roustabout, the only female in a shearing shed full of men. As the narrative moves back and forth through her past and present, we piece together the puzzle of her life, finally coming to know her fully at the end of the novel where the circle is completed.
I’d been up that morning, before the light came through, out there, talking to myself, telling the dog about the things that needed doing as the blackbirds in the hawthorn started up. Like a madwoman, listening to her own voice, the wind shoving it back down my throat and hooting over my open mouth like it had done every morning since I moved to the island. With the trees rattling in the copse and the sheep blaring out behind me, the same trees, the same wind and sheep.
Making a life on the land is a challenge and the two landscapes of Jake’s life are juxtaposed and skilfully evoked; one is full of dust, heat, eucalypts and spiders, the other cold, rainy, and windswept. Both are touched by the reality of death, both are unforgiving and harsh, humans always alienated, intruders, unwelcome.
The day has been a long and hot one – the tip of March, and under the crust of the galvo roof the air in the shearing shed has been thick like soup, flies bloating about in it.
The constant presence of birds throughout the novel – currawongs, crows, white galahs or blackbirds – provides little or no comfort; they are either observers of human activity or oblivious to it – leaning more towards Hitchcock than Mateship with Birds.
Jake has been called ‘a strong lady’, and ‘a little girl in a slut’s skin’, but who is she and how and why did she end up here, so far from friends, family, home? How old is she? What is she running from and what has she left behind? As the author keeps the reader in the dark, Jake tends to do the same. Even a former sheep-station colleague and lover, Greg, is none the wiser:
I tell him the in-between bits of my life, the bits that are available. Learning to shear, my friend Karen, and further back, the sharks, the bush.
The story of the scars she carries on her back also remains untold until the painful, murky truth of the past that has shaped her is revealed.
This is a novel written from and for the senses. It is full of sounds, strong emotions and smells – bush smells, food smells, the smell of blood and fear. It is also a novel about the rhythm of life on the land, about loss, grief, and friendship, about lonely people trying to reach out and connect with one another.
Part thriller, part coming-of-age story, All the Birds, Singing is probably not for those who don’t like to read about the darker side of human experience. As for me, I couldn’t stop reading and the novel came with me into my dreams the night I finished it …
Evie Wyld All the Birds, Singing Random House Australia 2013 PB 240pp $32.95
To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.