This week I stayed up too late one night to finish Evie Wyld’s novel All the Birds, Singing. After I turned out the lights, I lay awake deciphering how Wyld had stitched the thing together and how she’d managed to make every page of it wrought with terror and mystery.
Then I had a bunch of nightmares.
I don’t usually read thrillers. I’m not a great sleeper anyway – I’d hate to think what a steady diet of horror would do to my psyche. But I’m so glad I read Wyld’s novel, a delicious puzzle of a story.
About Jake Whyte, a woman who raises sheep on an island off the coast of England, Wyld’s novel toggles time: Moving forward through the present is the mystery of what’s killing Jake’s sheep – something vicious, stealthy, beastly – and the mystery of what’s chasing her from the past. Moving backward is the story of Jake’s past in Australia, also a mystery that increases in brutality as the novel careens on.
The twin haunting of Jake’s past and the current lives is flecked with leering, largely malicious characters. So much so that a reader is naturally suspicious of the mysterious stranger Lloyd, who shows up one stormy night at the ranch. Jake decides to trust him, but as we’ve seen, her life is a stew of unfortunate events and her own tragic choices. We don’t entirely trust her perspective.
Psychological and physical torment through the seen and the unseen stalk the novel’s pages. There’s the trope of gruesome scars on Jake’s back. Though we never get a really detailed bead on what, exactly, they look like, we understand them to be horrific and to appear as if she’s been ravaged by some clawed beast. More, every scene in which the scars present themselves means further menace for Jake. We come to understand the necessity of her muscular arms and legs, honed through a regimen of push-ups and sit-ups – sometimes the only aspect of her world she can control.
Plugging for Jake to occupy any kind of grace is what a reader brings to every threatening scene.
Structurally complicated and unflinching, the novel marches toward the mystery of Jake’s bleak past and what feels like her bleaker future. Along the way it’s peppered with the kindnesses of people with whom Jake attempts to heal. Greg, the boyfriend she leaves behind in Australia. Lloyd, who seems, always, to be in the right place at the right time. Don, from whom she bought the island ranch, who’s got his own set of demons to wrangle.
To all this Wyld adds the relentless rain, the wind, the isolation, and the uncertainty of what or whom is tracking her – man or supernatural force. Wyld shoves a reader along toward the inevitable intersection of past and present.
A point, this reader was certain, must be cataclysmic. And it is.
I will say that after the heart-drumming-up-at-night-reading-nightmare-having-hope-for-grace journey with Jake, I was surprised (and disappointed) at the ending. I spent quite a bit of time thumbing back through the pages, trying to trace the road map to the place where Wyld leaves us. It’s a purposefully mysterious place, that much is clear. After spending so much time in the good hands of a really accomplished storyteller, I had to reconcile the ending as artfully open and remember that sometimes landing the plane of a story is the most difficult part.
In an interview with Courtney Collins, Wyld talks about resisting neat closures. I don’t disagree with her; endings that solve every conflict make the journey to get there much less interesting. Equally dissatisfying, though, is a kind of vague falling away – two characters staring off into the distance might be real life, but it doesn’t much work for fiction, especially fiction that for two hundred excruciating pages is a punch in the gut.
I don’t think Wyld’s ending works, but I take her point: tidy endings stink; the world is full of mystery we can hardly imagine; our own hearts are sometimes cloaked in darkness. Ultimately, I recognize in the final scene a reconciliation for Jake, and for that, I’ll be able to sleep easier at night.
She won some impressive awards for All the Birds, Singing, her second novel: the Miles Franklin Award, the Encore Award, and the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered prize. She was short and long listed for a heap of others, and among The New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2014.
I can’t wait to see what dark tales Evie Wyld’s got waiting in the wings.