The heroine of All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld does push-ups when she’s angry or confused, and as a result she looks big, broad-chested, muscular. Also, her name is Jake. Also, she shears sheep for a living, and if you’ve never wrestled a 300-pound beast while hacking at its skin with large scissors, this is more strenuous labor than you might expect. All of which means that Jake comes across as manly. She likes it that way. It tells certain kinds of men to keep their distance: rough men, who, like Jake, migrate among the sheep stations of Australia, looking for work; and, later, taciturn old men who toil the craggy farms next to hers, on an unnamed British island. Jake just wants to be left alone.
Why Jake flees Australia for Britain is the question at the heart of this book, and it’s also the book’s missing piece. Ingeniously, Wyld builds her novel around this caesura, telling the story in two separate timelines. In the odd-numbered chapters, Jake is isolated on her grim British farm, and something is gruesomely killing her sheep. It could be disaffected teenagers from a nearby town, or it could be a creature that nobody else believes exists. These chapters move forward in time, starting with Jake’s arrival on the island and culminating in a confrontation with the sheep-killer.
In the even-numbered chapters, Jake is back in Australia, and the story moves backward from the moment before she flees to Britain. We first see Jake in relative domestic bliss on a sheep station, working hard by day, shacking up by night with a big-hearted Aussie named Greg. But something from Jake’s past catches up to her, and suddenly it’s unsafe for her to remain in the country. These chapters move backward in time, through deeper layers of Jake’s past. If being covered in sheep’s blood and dung all day sounds like tough work, it’s still an improvement over the homelessness and forced prostitution that Jake went through first. But her primary trauma is far more simple and adolescent, and the shock of it doesn’t arrive until the final pages.
By disposition and by necessity, Jake is an intensely alone character, and her narrative voice is as taut and explosive as her physique. Although she relates to animals and the landscape, she gets anxious around people, and Wyld is incredibly sensitive at depicting the rich loneliness of Jake’s interior life—like when a visitor knocks on her door.
His hair was gelled in neat rows from his crown to where it spiked over his eyes in mouse-brown spears. Wind came into the house and all I could think about was a time in the near future when this man would be gone and the door would be closed and the wind was outside again.
Jake’s voice is like a scab, toughened and gnarled by repeated injury. When a situation calls for her to seem kind, she reminds herself how to smile by thinking, “Teeth.” About sex work, she says: “That I have a tongue and a hold in my face means that in four or six minutes I can make more than a whole day of stooped, stinking work in the toilets.” But her bleak severity can be humorous, too. When another stranger turns up at Jake’s farm, and she reluctantly feeds him supper, Wyld delivers one of the funniest scenes between a strong woman and an effete man that I’ve ever read.
The fish was good, and the bread mopped up the whisky inside me. We didn’t speak, just the scrape of forks on plates, the gullet swallow of our drinks, and of our glasses being refilled. Outside the rustle of the wind in the trees and now and again a howl that could have been the wind whistling through the valley, from off the sea through the black thorn, down into the field of sheep feeding in the dark, and opening its mouth wide to swallow the house. We drank more and kept drinking.
‘God, I wish you’d get a haircut,’ he said.
I stood up and swiped at his face, but I only clipped his ear, and he grabbed me round the wrist.
‘Fucking hell!’ he shouted. ‘Just a trim!’
I went to bed.
Having been through patches of life that were worse than death, Jake approaches her situation with a deeper kinship with violence than most of us would ever want to have. Using a crowbar to beat the brains out of an injured kangaroo that she has hit with her car, Jake feels not only that she is doing the animal a kindness, but that she is proving herself to be “capable” in the sense of owning her mistakes. She feels great.
All the Birds, Singing is grisly. Brace yourself for a teenage girl giving oral sex to her elderly captor who is sitting on a toilet, and (elsewhere) for a drop of blood falling from a sheep’s carcass onto a dog’s open eye. But also prepare yourself for an indelible heroine, a fortifying lonesomeness, and a nuanced commentary on what it takes for an outcast girl to survive in an unforgiving world. Wyld’s novel is so bitterly gorgeous you want to linger, and so deeply jarring you want to run away. It deserves to be a modern classic.
– Brian Hurley is Books Editor at The Rumpus and Curator of the Critical Hit Awards at Electric Literature.