All the Birds, Singing
One thing I’ve learned in my brief video editing career: Just because you can produce an effect doesn’t mean you should. And the same for PowerPoint—all those animations, slides spinning in and whooshing out, bouncing arrows and stars and callouts, need only be used once in a lifetime, if that, and only to make a point.
A writer has, if anything, an even wider array of tricks to be thrifty with: points of view and setting and foreshadowing and dialect, and the list goes on and on. The point, of course, being to use them wisely, if at all. Stylistic choices need to feed the story; otherwise you just end up with Samuel Johnson’s dog that walks on its hind legs (“It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all”).
Evie Wyld’s new novel, All the Birds Singing, takes the risk and makes it work. To tell the story of Jake Whyte—a young woman living alone on an unnamed British island, tending her sheep farm and doing her best to stay unnoticed and unallied—she has set up a system of alternating chapters moving forward and backward in time. The pattern isn’t explicit, but once a reader gets into the swing of Wyld’s weird chronology, it all begins to make sense, and adds yet another layer to an already dark and thickset tale.
Right from the beginning, it’s clear that All the Birds Singing is not going to hand you a sweet chorus of chirps and trills:
Another sheep, mangled and bled out, her innards not yet crusting and the vapors rising form her like a steamed pudding. Crows, their beaks shining, strutting and rasping, and when I waved my stick they flew to the trees and watched, flaring out their wings, singing, if you could call it that.
Someone, or something, is killing off her sheep in particularly ugly fashion, feeding her general feelings of unease—feelings that are, as we gradually discover, justified. All we know at the start, through, is that she’s come to the most remote place possible to leave someone, or something, behind. Jake is tall, tough, capable, and very, very scared. Together with her loyal dog, Dog, she’s doing her best to keep her head down, care for the sheep, and avoid human contact whenever possible. Don, the farmer whose land she’s renting, is something of a comforting presence up the road. But there are other presences as well: noxious teenagers, drunken drifters, bad memories, and someone—or something—in the dark, at the edge of her nightmares, that may or may not be real.
At least the first three factors, however, are very real indeed. Jake ends up forced into contact with the local kids, and the drifter turns out to be an unexpected ally. But while she knows her memories—they’re tenacious and oppressive—Jake isn’t telling us a thing.
Hence Wyld and her storyteller’s temporal license. For every chapter that moves forward in a linear way from the grisly opening, there is another one jumping backward in time, offering one more piece of the puzzle that makes up Jake’s damaged life. In her recent past, for instance, there is a period spent on a sheep-shearing station in Australia. Redeemed by hard work and a kind man’s companionship, this relatively calm time is shattered by a fellow worker’s discovery of something unsavory:
Someone moves outside the pallet-board screen of the shower and I still my hands in my hair….
The pallet to my right darkens, and through a punched-out knot in the grain of the wood, an eye appears, and I back away from it, my voice gone.
“I know about you,” says the eye. “You don’t fool me; I know about you and what you’ve done,” it says and the voice is thick and sticky and there’s the smell of rotten eggs and lanolin together and whisky and unwashed places.
As Jake’s story progresses in one direction, it also moves back and back further into her story: from sheep-shearing to an unsavory backwoods confinement—here there is one of the best bad dogs I’ve found in anything I’ve read lately, contrasting Dog’s essential goodness—to prostitution, homelessness, bad teenage years. Each backward-reaching revelation simultaneously offers answers and raises more questions about how, exactly, this has all happened. And every forward-moving chapter ratchets up the mystery of what, exactly, is terrorizing her. There’s something vaguely menacing about the chronological jumps and stutters, leaving the reader keenly aware at the end of each piece of backstory how much we are at Wyld’s mercy as a narrator, and how dependent we are on action moving in one direction; there’s a very final sense, at the end of each chapter, that we’ll not learn any more about that particular part of Jake’s life, though perhaps what went before might explain something if we can bear it. And to throw the reader just a bit more, the past sections are narrated in present tense, the present ones in past tense.
Wyld has a steady hand throughout all of this; she lets the reader’s darkest thoughts do much of the heavy lifting, and capably invokes both the supernatural and the very concrete aspects of fear. The natural world is a strong presence as well, as an ongoing threat—“There’s that solid heat that gets bounced down on us from the tin roof, and the flies in here are fat and damp—when they land around your mouth you feel like you’ve been kissed by something dead”—and in bursts of sudden beauty, tinged in the exotic colors of Australian birds, spiders, sharks, and lizards. Mostly, and unsurprisingly, there is an ambiguity that is lovely in its own bittersweet fashion:
Here and there on the slope of the field were old tree trunks whose roots had been too deep to pull out when the land was cleared, long, long ago. Some were split and hollowed out, eaten by wasps, and grew a fungi that Don called Jew’s ears. Those trunks were sitting there, with the wars starting and finishing around them, horses being overtaken by tractors, the birth of Don, probably the birth of his father, certainly his father’s death. It made me feel lonely to think about it, that old English history in the dark and the wet, the short days with no electricity. It made me want to go and sit in the truck, rev the throttle, just to remind myself of my century, just to feel the modern dry heat of the engine.
All the Birds, Singing is a study in ambiguity, in fact. It’s a heartbreaking picture of an ordinary life gone bad, on one hand; and at the same time it’s a fine, chilling suspense story. There are good dogs and bad, good men and bad, fire and blood and water, and Jake is both heroine and antiheroine. But her voice is clear and straightforward throughout, and what could have been a sad and murky tale with a clever bit of temporal exhibitionism is instead a bittersweet, oddly engaging story of demons and, maybe, redemption.
And maybe not. Wyld has the tact not to spell anything out for us that we can’t figure out—or imagine—or have nightmares about—ourselves. This is a strange and satisfying book, whose craftiness can’t hide its author’s cool control.