Jake Whyte is an Australian woman who lives on an isolated sheep farm in England with her dog. She has few friends (if you can call them that), and mostly shuns all social interactions. Her immediate concern is that something keeps violently attacking her sheep, and she’s convinced that it’s not a fox but rather someone or something. It quickly becomes evident to the reader that that’s not all that’s bothering her: Jake is clearly haunted by something from her past. She has a mess of scars covering her back, and she often wakes up from nightmares in the middle of the night, convinced that someone is at her door.
As the book unfolds, we start to see more references to Jake’s past. All the Birds, Singing isn’t a linear book; the occasional flashback is thrown in. This sometimes makes for a disjointed reading experience because it isn’t always immediately clear that a flashback is taking place. New characters and scenes are introduced, only to once again be subsumed into the mystery of Jake’s past. It’s clear that something violent happened, and it’s clear that she wasn’t always the anti-social person she is now, but she’s not a reliable character; she lies to others about her past and, as such, frequently leaves the reader in the dark as well.
I think this is one of those books that a lot of people will either love or hate (although I fell somewhere in between). With regards to the non-linear plot, I’m almost tempted to say that the book is written in reverse: it starts at the end and works its way to the beginning. But that’s not entirely true; the flashbacks mostly work that way, but the format feels a little more experimental than that. (In fact, there were certain elements in the book that had me going, “Is this…speculative fiction? Even now, I’m not sure!) There are huge chunks of the book devoted to people that will ultimately disappear from the story, which frustrating since it takes a while to pinpoint their place in the book’s tapestry to begin with. It was a hard book for me to get into, but I finally fell into the book’s rhythm somewhere around the halfway mark.
I think the closest author I can think to compare Wyld to is Karen Russell (perhaps with a touch of Jenni Fagan as well), but even that seems a bit off. If you don’t mind more atmosphere than action, perhaps this is a book for you.
All the Birds, Singing was released in the US in April 2014 by Pantheon Books, an imprint of Random House. In 2013, Granta named Evie Wyld one of the Best Young British Novelists.