Evie Wyld's 'All the birds, singing" is such a ... book. I'm really not sure what the right word is. Wonderful yes, dark and brooding, atmospheric, a little scary even. Jake has every reason for wanting to hide from the world, and by the time you have learned even a small part of her story you want to hide with her. You want to sit and drink whisky and slouch on the sofa smelling faintly of wet dog and sheep.
The story's construction confused me for the first few chapters; the 'current' narrative follows Jake in her tiny isolated sheep farm somewhere I guess in Scotland, and the alternate story runs in reverse, following this tough and vulnerable young woman working as a sheep shearer in Australia and threads slowly back through the previous years of her life bringing us to the events that set her on the path. The world and her legally bonded life partner have been waxing lyrical about this book and there aren't any unused superlatives left. I feel as if I could open it at random and whatever was there would be the perfect quote. Everything Jake does seems to speak volumes about the inner turmoil and fear. She puts on this fierce shell for the world, the 'I don't need anyone' attitude, until she becomes convinced that something is hunting her sheep, and very possibly her as well. Into the picture steps a man. Your eyes pass over him at first meeting, he is just a random trespasser, another person she just wants to keep away. But gradually he is allowed to loiter on the periphery and almost without noticing he stays. We don't learn much about him, he obviously has troubles of his own, but he asks nothing and in return she lets down her guard. He's not some kind of hero who comes and slays the beast, in fact he is frequently rather useless, but he simply makes her feel less like she has to handle her fears alone.
So here are some totally random quotes, because I was too involved to note down specific things I liked. Firstly from her old life in Australia:
"In the morning, Sid finds weevils have made it into the flour.
'I don't particularly mind,' he says. 'I'm just saying in case anyone has an aversion to having the buggers in the bread.' There is silence while the table takes this in, and it is broken by a shout from Alan by the side of the woodshed.
Something has taken bite out of the side of one of the rams. He's not dead, just looks like someone tore past him and took a chunk out. Flies swarm the wound. Connor shoots the ram, while we all stand around. The animal twitches.
'Just nerves firing,' Denis says to me, like I am a hysterical woman who needs comforting. But I'm thinking how quick it was and what a mercy. One second horribly wounded, feeling flies lay their eggs in your flesh and watching the currawong circle, and the next, in a flash, all is safe. I will learn to fire a gun, I think, they are the answer." (p.25)
And secondly, life on the sheep farm:
"Inside, while Lloyd sat on the sofa, I'd filled a mug with water. He drank it and then held his forehead in his hands. I washed the mud off my face and dried it with a tea towel. Outside rattled against the window. I turned the kitchen light on and it flickered on and off and on again.
I wondered how old he was - younger than my father the last time I'd seen him, but older than the farmers who came to offer their services. I took mugs out of the cupboard and put them back. I found a pack of paracetamol and set them on the counter, wondering if I should offer them to him, or if that would encourage him to stay. I watched him from the corner of my eye, watched for a look or a sudden movement. I ran an itinerary of the kitchen. Hammer under the sink, half a brick on the window sill." (p.84)
I really love that "Outside rattled against the window", it doesn't need any further explanations, you know what she means. The supporting cast are all so beautifully drawn; Don, the old farmer down the valley, Greg on the shearing team, temporary roommate Karen and even the weird Otto, who's probably more sad than threatening. What I loved was the striking contrast between the two environments; the hot, flyblown sheep station and the dark, rain-sodden farm. And yet they are both so unremitting, and so dominate the way people in them have to live. Both are also isolated, though in slightly different ways, from 'civilization' and have their own sense of self reliance and rules of behaviour. Jake is using them to hide from her past, and from people, but you get the feeling that the beast of her imaginings will try and catch up with her. All round a perfect book, it gets inside the life and the mindset of its character so deeply the closing scene is something of a relief.
(Review here of 'After the fire, a still small voice'.)