Isolation, buried secrets, and what lurks in the shadows are the unquestionable foundations upon which this novel is built. Jake Whyte lives on a remote British island, tending to her sheep on a farm she purchased three years prior. She keeps to herself except for the occasional visit from Don, the previous shepherd who owned her farm, and who doesn’t leave a chance to remind her that she really should ingratiate herself into the rest of the rural community, instead of staying alone at her farm.
Jake seems content with her solitary life, but then a recent spate of worrying days have befallen her. She has woken up to the unpleasant fact that her sheep are being killed at night. Not only are they killed, but they are gutted and sliced open, giving the reality of it being a fox too much doubt. Everyone in the town seems happy to agree that it’s just a wild animal, but Jake can’t get past the brutality of the killings.
Once the reader becomes sufficiently comfortable even in this most sinister of circumstances, author Evie Wyld pulls the narrative back in time to Jake living in her native Australia. She is a drifter working as a hired hand on a sheep farm with other unattached youth. Wyld goes back and forth with alternating chapters between the present day of the English farm to scenes from Jake’s past. An interesting facet of the background chapters is that they unfold in reverse. This was reminiscent of the 2002 French film, Irréversible, which was told backwards with the horrifying event having already taken place, leading the characters and the viewers to do the painful yet necessary task of looking at everything that had already been. Wyld employs the same technique, resulting in Jake’s adolescent years to be reverted back to an earlier, more naive state — or is she really that naive, could be another question.
The present day story took a while to build in tension. Even with the gruesome sheep slayings, no real threat enters until a mysterious stranger named Lloyd arrives on Jake’s property. He clearly has his own secrets, which he is happy to hide and with this man’s new presence, the shadowy threat becomes more prominent to Jake, who might see the killer around corners or off in the dark distance.
Utilizing a non-linear narrative for the alternating chapters was an intriguing choice. It pushed the secret of Jake’s past and how she ended up where she now is in a way that, perhaps, would have fallen flat. Part of this second narrative was toeing the line, however, with being tired and played out. I won’t reveal elements of this plot, but All the Birds, Singing could have been easily placed with all of the other recent media and entertainment that finds its plots in the sexual abuse or exploitation of young women. An author can write whatever they desire, but there is such an overload of this plot nowadays, that it made the novel feel like just another one of these. It wasn’t particularly original in this aspect, nor, in its execution.
The more engrossing part of the novel was in the present day. The threat is unknowable and not quite corporeal. Mysterious strangers with their own pasts is too good, but like the threat, the ending to this storyline is never fully formed. Recently, I find myself drawn to literature and movies that leave me with less than concrete answers and conclusions. With that said, however, this path can only be a success when other notions and ideas are a part of the narrative. Wyld didn’t build a world where I was capable of inserting my own philosophies and form unspoken possibilities. There were no connections to be made…unfortunately.
This was a difficult one in that my excitement was letdown. The writing is crisp and solid, and Wyld does an adequate job of making Jake’s sheep farm eerie.
“This is a wild place, there could be all sorts of animals you don’t know about–”
Both plots in the novel are wild places, yet, they don’t make up for that fact that something was missing. Nothing was ever quite realized. The fact that the book had an interesting premise and was populated with instances of intrigue and unknowing didn’t make up for the large portion that was tired and stale in the contemporary conscience. This uneveness left something to be desired.
This novel will be released in the US by Pantheon Books on April 15, 2014.
**I’m curious to know others people’s opinions on the overload of plots in movies, television, and books in regards to the aforementioned sexual exploitation components. Of course, this has always been around in our entertainment (re: Law & Order: SVU), but lately I think we’ve just been inundated with this. To me, it almost feels cliché and an easy path for a creator to take to add gravitas or horror to their work. With that said, I love Twin Peaks and the recent True Detective, so perhaps I am just spouting hypocrisy.