All the Birds Singing is the winner of the 2014 Miles Franklin Literary Award, given to a book judged to be ‘of the highest literary merit’ which presents ‘Australian Life in any of its phases’. I don’t have a very good history with literary prize winning books, and I’ve only read one of the other five short-listed books – Eyrie, by Tim Winton (and you can see my post on that book here). But I think this time they’ve got it right. I can’t really say I enjoyed the book, but I found it utterly compelling.
The structure of this book is crucial to its power. In the first chapter, we meet Jake Whyte, a young Australian woman living on her small sheep farm on an unnamed island off the British coast. She welcomes solitude and avoids the locals as much as possible, her only company being a dog called Dog. But something is killing her sheep. The second chapter takes the reader, quite without warning, back to a sheep station in Australia, where Jake is working as a shearer. The next chapter is back on the island, the next in Australia and so on. The chapters set on the island deal with Jake’s life there and her determination to protect her sheep. She is the narrator, and the story moves forward in time, though it is told in the past tense. She also narrates the chapters set in Australia, but in the present tense. These, however, move back in time. They tell how Jake comes to be working as a shearer, why she has fled to Britain and how she got the terrible scars on her back.
This structure was a little confusing at first, but I quickly came to feel that the story couldn’t have been told in any other way – surely the mark of excellent writing. Instead of spoiling the tension by revealing what has happened, the Australian chapters incrementally increase the tension as each chapter hints at what happened earlier, leaving the reader hungry to know more, and increasingly anxious about what they may find. It also increases the poignancy, with the reader knowing that some hopes and expectations are doomed to be unfulfilled, as their outcome has already been revealed. And it turns out there is every reason to be apprehensive.
You know right from the start that there is a lot of pain in this story – though I don’t know what the quote on the front cover, that ‘Wyld has a feel both for beauty and for the ugliness of inherited pain’, actually means. Inherited pain? But the eviscerated sheep on the first page isn’t a one off; there are animal deaths of one kind or another in nearly every chapter, as well as human misery. Jake gives animals feelings, often enough of panic or terror. Her personification of Dog, on the other hand, is one of the delights of the story, though it is also an illustration of her loneliness and alienation from human beings.
Some critics, and the Miles Franklin judges, see in the story ‘perhaps, some form of redemption,’ but I didn’t really find much comfort amidst the bleakness. As Jake says, ’Stupid to think it wouldn’t all fall to shit.’ The incident that sums up all the desolation for me is the one where she hits a kangaroo while driving. At first she thinks the animal is ok: ‘I laugh out loud at how wonderful life is that takes a hell of a knock like that and it’s just fine,’ she says. But it isn’t. The kangaroo is fatally injured, and she has to finish it off with a crowbar. I suppose the point is that she takes responsibility for what has happened, rather than just driving away and leaving the animal to die in pain. But then there are the circumstances in which Jake gets the wounds to her back. Can the reader feel any optimism for her after what happened? Again, maybe it is the responsibility she feels for the sheep in her care on the island that will be her salvation.
When I recently read and reviewed Victoria Hislop’s The Island, my immediate response was that it was not well written. This time, the language feels just right. What’s the difference? What is good writing? The Miles Franklin judges, and other critics, emphasise the ‘deceptive sparseness’ of the prose. I think it’s also that the tone is just right – or ‘perfect pitch’, as another reviewer called it. Jake speaks and thinks exactly as she should for who she is. Thinking about what makes some writing good and some just ordinary, I often fall back on John Carey’s definition of literature: ‘writing that I want to remember … those particular words in that particular order’. That sounds about right for this book.
Having said all that, there are still a few things that nag at me about the story. While the British chapters are continuous in time, the Australian chapters jump back irregularly, so it is sometimes hard to get a sense of how much time has passed between the events being described. The practical part of my brain wonders how Jake became such a competent shearer in what seems like a relatively short space of time. And even though the reader knows she has been left some money, how is she able to buy the British sheep farm? How did she even get a passport? If the story is, as has been claimed, a ‘moral fable’, maybe this level of social realism isn’t relevant, but I still can’t help wondering. I guess it’s because Wyld has made Jake such a real person for me.
You can read more about Evie Wyld here. This is her second book. I’ll take a deep breath and read the first one, but I might look for a little bit of light relief first.