I first came across this book when I was writing an article for The UoB Linguist Magazine about the lack of translated literature in the UK (you can read the article here if you are interested, although reading back over it now I think I may have been a little harsh on the mainstream UK publishing industry. If you have another point of view, I’d love to hear it! Feel free to comment here or on the article itself.) On the basis of her second novel All the Birds, Singing, Evie Wyld was one of 13 authors to be awarded the 2014 European Union Prize for Literature, which gives funding to up-and-coming writers to get their books translated. Whether All the Birds, Singing has been translated as a direct result of winning the EUPL is hard to find out. I’ve only managed to find versions in Dutch (Overal Vogelzang), Turkish (Kuslar Öterken) and French (Tous les oiseaux du ciel), but maybe there are other translations in the pipeline.
Anyway, to the book! It took me a bloody long time to actually get round to reading it, but when I did I was completely blown away. It is an absolutely stunning novel.
It’s hard to pin down the contents in order to give a plot summary, so I’ll just say that it is centred around an Australian woman, Jake, who is living on a small island somewhere in the UK. Something is killing her sheep, and as she tries to find an explanation, we slowly learn about her past in Australia. The book is beautifully written and filled with vivid, atmospheric descriptions which evoke such a strong sense of place that I came away from the novel with a real impression of the landscapes of both settings. The tone seamlessly moves from being chilling and unsettling to funny and heart-warming – the way it could have me laughing one minute and hiding under the duvet the next was truly remarkable. You only have to read the first paragraph to see how masterfully this novel is written:
Another sheep, mangled and bled out, her innards not yet crusting and the vapours rising from 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. I shoved my boot in Dog’s face to stop him from taking a string of her away with him as a souvenir, and he kept close by my side as I wheeled the carcass out of the field and down into the woolshed.
What makes the novel stand out for me most of all is its impressive and interesting structure. In any other hands it could have easily been clunky, but Wyld crafts the narrative so skilfully that it’s an absolute wonder to read. I’ll try and explain it as simply as I can – but I suspect it is a lot more satisfying to read the book not knowing beforehand how it is set out, so if you’re planning to imminently read the book, shut your eyes now! 😉
There are two ‘strands’ to the main character’s story, revealed in alternating chapters. The opening chapter is set on the unnamed island, and this strand continues in every other chapter. So far, so simple. The chapters in between are set in Jake’s past, in Australia. The interesting thing about these ‘Australian’ chapters is that they move backwards in time: the second chapter happens fairly soon before the opening chapter on the UK island; the fourth chapter is set just before the second chapter, and so on. This means that we slowly get a picture of Jake’s past at the same time that the present narrative is moving forward.
In many ways this is much more satisfying than the bog-standard ‘flashback’ timeline, where the plot alternates between past and present strands which are both moving forward, meaning that the past timeline has to start very distant so that it doesn’t suddenly catch up with the present. I tend to get irritated by those kind of structures, because the novel feels disjointed – you are just getting into the ‘flow’ of one storyline and you are yanked backwards or forwards to another one, which inevitably you care less about (or at least think you do to begin with). All the Birds, Singing solves this problem, because at no point does the reader have gaps in their knowledge of the character – instead, you start with a small view which grows in both directions. We gain a much deeper understanding of the character than if we’d started with her childhood alongside her present and then slowly filled in the gaps between them.
All aspects of All the Birds, Singing – language, structure, character – are staggeringly good, and the book has to be up there with my all-time favourites. If you’ve read it, let me know what you thought in the comments below!
Other books by Evie Wyld: After the Fire, A Still Small Voice and Everything is Teeth (with Joe Sumner).