All right, so I’ve been accustomed to reading books with no obvious plot, little character change, no convincing setting or sense of time—three of the basic elements of narrative that most critics identify. But there’s a fourth—known as conflict—that critics feel is mandatory for a narrative to be identified as fiction (short story or novel). Without conflict, the form is a no go, though that conflict may not be resolved. Nothing may change much. The problem might still exist on the last page just as it did on the first. Are you following me? Does it matter? Probably not, as Evie Wyld’s tension-filled All the Birds, Singing demonstrates. Add another category (a meaningful title) and you have a discussable series of topics for a graduate seminar. Moreover, Wyld (who grew up in Australia) can write: exquisite prose, often poetic, filled to the brim with memorable images, but, oh, the frustration of resolving almost nothing can be unsettling.
This is what we do know, though only by the time we get to the last few pages of the novel. Jake Whyte, a woman probably in her mid-thirties, has chosen to set up her own sheep farm on a remote island off the coast of England. It’s not a huge farm, about fifty sheep, what she can manage by herself (along with her dog, imaginatively named Dog). Recently, she’s been waking up in the morning and discovering that a sheep has been killed during the night, with a good chunk of its innards missing. She suspects some of the young punks in the area, possibly out to harass her because she lives alone and is not known in the community for her friendliness. But the problem is that strange men keep walking over her property, so isn’t it just as likely that the sheep are being killed by one of them, i.e., a human being instead of an animal? This “story” moves forward in time, until it reaches the very end, when a gigantic beast appears in the distance, though what it is is still not identified.
An equal amount of space is given over to Jake’s much earlier life, as a teenager and young adult, in Australia, also in a fairly remote area of the country. And this part of the narrative mostly runs backwards. We see Jake, first, as a young woman, brutalized by a much older man who keeps her in his house, often locked up, but kept for his sexual outlet. She may not be a prisoner but it’s close to that. Moreover, she apparently first met him when she was a hooker on the streets of Port Hedland, a mining town, where she fled after difficulties at home and a horrendous beating that scarred her back so badly
that some of her clients are turned off by it when the see her naked. Jake has entered prostitution quite by accident when she discovered that she could earn more from one brief sexual encounter than picking fruit and cleaning public toilets (two jobs she held earlier) for an entire day.
Tracing that earlier stage in her life back further, we see Jake as a tomboyish teenager in another town where aboriginals are held with contempt, except that the white teenage girls apparently drool after the aboriginal young men. It’s the usual instance of forbidden sex between the races, repressed by the country’s racism. Jake makes the error of concluding that one of these guys, Denver Cobby, is attracted to her because all at once he becomes friendly with her, seemingly implying something beyond a casual friendship.
Much of what I have described thus far is only hinted at by nuance, and because the narrative simultaneously moves forward—hopefully so that Jake will discover what/who is killing her sheep—and backwards to her childhood at home, with a fully intact family (father, mother, older sister and triplet brothers), issues of cause and effect, we assume, will be addressed. But they are not. While she is still in Australia, but after she had fled from the remote area of her birth, she suddenly discovers $50,000 in her checking account. The source? Insurance money from her father’s accidental death (which she did not know about until she called home to ask about the 50K). Presumably, that money has given her the opportunity to leave Australia and migrate to England, buy a sheep farm so she can employ one of the skills she learned when she was living on her own. But we are shown little of this directly. Nor do we know for certain how she managed to escape the house where she was the older man’s sex slave. And certainly we do not know that the monster/creature is, the one that is possibly killing her sheep at the end of the story.
I have written this review of All the Birds, Singing without quoting a single passage. There is nothing that can be quoted that will explain anything. Still, Evie Wyld has an incredible talent to keep the reader engaged, turning the pages, and hopeful that everything will be illuminated. Is that a matter of hope springs eternal or hope becomes hopeless?
Evie Wyld: All the Birds, Singing
Pantheon, 229 pp., $24.95
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.