This winner of the 2014 Miles Franklin Award is mesmerizing and leaves unclear what is real and what is imagined. The main character is Jake, a woman who raises sheep on an island off the coast of England. She grew up in Australia, in a truly grim and ugly environment.
The story of her current life on the island is told along with the revelations of her miserable past in alternating chapters. While her life taking care of the sheep unfolds conventionally in that events are told in the order they happened, the story of her life in Australia began with the more recent events and moves backward until the seminal event of her life is revealed. Though this sounds tricky, it was not a barrier to understanding and did not seem an unnatural way to tell the story.
Jake is quintessentially Australian in her toughness and fearlessness. Her reaction to a redback spider she sees while working on a sheep ranch in Australia follows:
We are a week away from the end of the job in Boodarie. I’m in the shower at the side of the tractor shed watching the thumb-sized redback that’s always sat at the top of the shower head. She hasn’t moved at all except to raise a leg when I turn on the tap, like the water’s too cold for her.
In contrast if Bill Bryson, who wrote In a Sunburned Country saw this venomous spider in a shower, he would not turn on the water and would head for the nearest airport. Then he would tell you that it is only since an antivenom was created that there have been no deaths from redback spider bites. He might also mention that this is one of the few spiders that display sexual cannibalism while mating.
And then there’s her dog, named “Dog,” who is her companion and works with the sheep.
It started to rain heavily, and I turned up the heating and put the wipers on full speed. We drove past the spot I usually stopped to walk Dog and he sat in the passenger seat and stared at me hard, and every time I turned to look at him he put his ears up, like we were mid-conversation and I was avoiding his look. “So what?” I said. “You’re a dog.” And then he turned around and looked out the window.
From the outset we know that something is killing Jake’s sheep, two in a month. She doesn’t know how it’s happening and grows paranoid, eventually thinking it might be related to the horror of her life in Australia. We learn about her childhood bit by bit until her terrible secret is revealed. All this sounds unpleasant, but ultimately, somehow the book ends on a positive note.
Evie Wyld, All the Birds, Singing, Pantheon, 2014, 241 pages (I read the Kindle version). Available at the UVa and public library, and from Amazon.