Dog ate a dead crab

All the Birds, Singing, by Evie Wyld

It’s been a while since I’ve been able to properly update the blog – too busy at work. That also means I’m reading terrifically slowly, inching my way through Edith Grossman’s Don Quixote translation a few pages a day. Thankfully, since I’m crawling through Don Quixote at the speed of a mobility-impaired snail, it is at least a very good translation and an absolute pleasure to read.

Anyway, enough about Don Quixote for now, because this entry is about another very good book (seamless segue there, absolutely seamless) – Evie Wyld’s second novel titled All the Birds, Singing. Here’s the opening paragraph:

Another sheep, mangled and bled out, her innards not yet crusting and the vapours rising from her like a steamed pudding. Crows, their beaks shining, strutting and rasping, and when I waved my stick they flew to the trees and watched, flaring out their wings, singing, if you could call it that. I shoved my boot in Dog’s face to stop him from taking a string of her away with him as a souvenir, and he kept close by my side as I wheeled the carcass out of the field and down into the woolshed.

I love that opening. Immediately I’m uneasy – another sheep, so not the first; mangled and bled out, so probably not an accidental death; there’s a total lack of sentiment both in the reaction to the body and in the fact that the narrator’s dog is named simply Dog. That’s a lot of information packed into one paragraph.

On top of that there’s some lovely description there. The innards not yet crusting, it’s unpleasant but arresting and easy to picture. The vapours rising as if from a steamed pudding, which as well as being evocative and disquieting (mixing imagery of food and death) tells the reader that it’s probably cold. I love too the crows, “shining, strutting and rasping”, flying away but not too far, singing their raucous song.

All the Birds

The “I” in that quote is Jake Whyte, an Australian woman now living on a remote Island in the UK. She farms sheep, but something is killing them. Perhaps a wild beast, perhaps local teenagers, perhaps someone or something else. She has scars on her back, unexplained, and she doesn’t mix much with the other farmers. She lives alone, with Dog, but she fears she’s being watched.

Jake isn’t really an unreliable narrator – there’s nothing to suggest she lies to herself or has many illusions. She isn’t though wholly reliable either. Something very ugly has driven her to her present seclusion, and while it’s certain she feels under threat, besieged, it’s not at all clear that she’s actually in any danger. The local police think she spends too much time alone for her own good, and there’s a definite suspicion that the shadows she jumps at are ones she brought with her. Still, something’s killing the sheep…

Chapter two ducks backwards in time, to when Jake was still in Australia working on a sheep farm in the outback. She went there fleeing something, but one of her workmates has found out her past. He tries to use whatever he’s learned to blackmail her for sex. She breaks his jaw with a punch and soon she’s fleeing again. Whatever’s driving Jake, it’s serious.

As a quick aside, it’s nice to have a female protagonist whose reaction to being menaced in that way is to deck the guy threatening her. Part of Jake’s problem though is that she’s much better at responding to physical challenges than she is to emotional ones.

The novel continues in alternating chapters. The ones in the UK go forward in time in the usual way, each chronologically not long after the last. The Australian chapters though go backwards in time, each showing a key moment in Jake’s history.

The first Australian chapter then is the last in a sense, showing how she came to leave the outback sheep station. The next Australian chapter is earlier, showing how Jake became a sheep shearer but fell out with the man who’d later try to blackmail her. The next shows her arriving at the station – I won’t say where she was before that or what drove her to end up somewhere so remote.

What all this means is that Jake is a woman in hiding. She hid in the Australian outback, but her past found her there. Now she’s hiding on an island where nobody could ever find her, unless of course somehow they have.

With all this I’m making it sound like a crime novel or a thriller. It’s not at all though. It’s as readable as a crime novel, but it’s very much literary fiction. There’s a lot of very careful construction here. References made in the UK sections are explained as the Australian sections slowly excavate Jake’s past. Jake’s situation, past and present, slowly unfolds as Wyld carefully walks that very fine line between maintaining suspense and manipulating the reader.

The risk with this kind of novel is a sense of artificiality. Obviously all novels are artificial, but many (most) novels don’t want to make their artifice too obvious. Here we have two narrative streams one going forward, one back, each shedding light upon the other as well as plenty of symbolism and careful narrative device. It’s an origami novel, and that raises a question about whether it’s too neat, too evidently constructed.

The answer to that question is no, Wyld pulls it off. The reason she does so is the depth and precision of her description. I believed her outback, I believed her island, I believed more to the point in Jake. There’s a beautifully clean matter-of-factness to her prose which shows the essence of what she’s describing while avoiding seeming overwritten. It’s that which saves the book, and more than saves it, makes it good.

This is a book full of terrible things. The slaughtered sheep; Jake’s terrible past; the indifferent violence of the natural world and the casual cruelty of the human; a powerful and horrible scene in Australia where Jake hits a kangaroo with her truck causing it so much suffering she ends up having to kill it with a crowbar to spare it further pain. Jake’s seclusion brings her natural environment to the foreground – isolated from humanity she lives a near-animist existence in which the life around her seems filled with intent and Jake is but one wounded animal among others.

For all that horror and pain though it’s not a bleak book. The descriptions of the natural world are beautiful, and the arrival of an alcoholic drifter who comes to Jake’s farm starts to draw her back from the world she’s constructed for herself – the claustrophobic isolation of her own history.

For a novel like this it always comes down to the writing. Get that right and the rest should follow (get that wrong and it’s painful). Wyld gets it right. This is an oddly difficult novel to quote from, in large part because of its subtlety of structure, much of the effect is lost if taken away from context. It’s full of small yet telling observations. One I couldn’t resist including here comes from when Jake first sees Greg, a sheep shearer that the reader knows later became her lover, shearing a sheep: Greg’s sheep are sleek and clean with no grazes, like they’ve been buttered …” 

I haven’t bought Evie Wyld’s second novel yet, but I shall before the year’s out and it’ll be high on my to read pile. In a way that’s the ultimate test for any author, does one wish to read more by them? I want to read more by Evie Wyld.

Two reviews which I found helpful when I was deciding whether to read this or not were that of David Hebblethwaite at his blog, here, and Simon Savidge’s blog Savidgereads which I don’t link too nearly as often as I should. His review is here. Finally, in the interests of full disclosure I should say that I got my copy directly from Evie Wyld – she had a couple spare and gave them away on twitter to whoever asked first and I happen to follow her account and got lucky.

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21 Comments

Filed under Crows, English Literature, Wyld, Evie

21 responses to “Dog ate a dead crab

  1. Lucky you Max. I was just thinking this morning that it’s been ages since I visited you and then you suddenly appeared in my in-box. I’ve been intrigued by this book, but haven’t managed to get to it (well, I don’t have a copy to get to, but you know what I mean). I’ve read another backwards-forwards book in recent years but darned if I can remember it.

    Anyhow, I clearly must read this – if only to find out what the terrible thing is and what Wyld is saying about the Australian outback. Is the outback itself a metaphor for horror, fear or something similar? But, don’t tell me. I need to read it?

  2. You mentioned “origami” construction which is a great way of putting it. Reminds me of Gone Girl which was the hit of the year in 2012 but which I was very annoyed by because of its artificial structure. I know we’re limited by the narrator, but there is a limit!

    Anyway, this sounds good. Although I’ll admit that the dog named Dog seems a bit contrived.

  3. The outback is closer to a place of refuge. She’s fleeing to ever more remote places – the outback and then a UK island (and some other places too but that would be a spoiler).

    I don’t see the outback as metaphor then, more as an environment largely removed from people. The descriptions of Australia are great, though not having been I’ve no idea how accurate they are. They feel true though.

    I said it’s not a crime novel, and that’s true, but in a sense it is a detective novel save that the reader’s the detective. Following the trail backwards you piece together her history, slowly realising what made her who she is in the contemporary UK chapters. In a way it works towards two resolutions, one long ago where it becomes apparent why she started running, the other now as some prospect of stopping running starts to present itself.

    If you do read it I’d be fascinated to hear your thoughts.

  4. I should clarify: while Gone Girl was a pageturner, I felt as though I’d been had through a manipulative structure.

  5. It’s why I was talking about that careful line she has to walk as an author Guy. I get hugely annoyed by writers who withhold information in an artificial way blatantly trying to get some cheap tension going. I don’t think she does that, but you can’t write this kind of novel and not risk doing that.

    I used to have a cat called Cat, as indeed did Holly Golightly who remains one of my favourite characters (film or book), so I didn’t have an issue with a dog named Dog. If it’s good enough for Holly, it’s good enough for me.

    Edit: Re your second comment, that’s how I’d read your comment on Gone Girl.

  6. Thanks for that response Max … you’ve managed to intrigue me more. Will do my best to get to it as she’s clearly a writer to watch.

  7. I’ve got her first and was tempted to include it in my readalong but then unfortunately I stumbled over a lukewarm review.
    I really like the sound of this one but since I try to follow your book buying advice (don’t buy more than one of an author you haven’t read yet), I’ll have to read After the Fire first.
    The first paragraph is really so good. The whole book sounds suspenseful and literary. Great combination.

  8. Really glad you enjoyed this, Max. Evie Wyld is one of my favourite emerging writers; I look forward to seeing how her career develops.

    I like your point about artifice. It was something I noticed when reading the novel, of course; but it never felt out of place. In a way, she makes it seem natural, if that’s not a contradiction in terms.

  9. leroyhunter

    Interesting. The structure (one strand going forwards, one strand backwards) is exactly like that of the movie Memento. I won’t ask if, like Memento, the strands meet…

    I’d seen a lot of positive chatter about this without it really making an impression on me, but this is a strong recommendation Max.

  10. She’s a new writer to me and a good one, apparently. (I trust your opinion on this) I’ll have to wait for a French translation though, she lost me in that first quote.

    PS : “As a quick aside, it’s nice to have a female protagonist whose reaction to being menaced in that way is to deck the guy threatening her.” Is that why she has a guy’s name?

  11. Your review backlog is worse than mine. Good luck with it. I hope you’ll have time to write about all of them.

  12. I’m subscribed to your blog WG, so I’ll look forward to your thoughts when you get to it.

    David, the point about artifice was partly inspired by the discussion in your comments section. It did seem like natural artifice, which I guess is a way of saying the technique as used here works but it can’t of course avoid being an obvious use of technique.

    Eleanor Catton’s on my radar mostly due to you too. No idea when I’ll get to her though. I’ll probably read The Rehearsals first. Loved your piece on The Luminaries, can’t recall if I said so at your blog or not. Sorry if not.

    I did think about Memento Leroy, and yes there are some structural similarities in the Australian sections with that film. It’s not so much that the strands meet (they can’t literally since they’re going in different temporal directions) as that by the end you can see the whole picture.

    Emma, no idea why she has a guy’s name. She is in parts of the book filling traditionally male roles, but that point isn’t oversold. At one point on the sheepstation the boss has a chat with her about her relationship with another sheep-shearer. It gets fairly funny as he refers to her as a bloke, and talks about how she’s a good bloke and her boyfriend’s a good bloke and it’s a good thing when good bloke’s get together but she should be careful other bloke’s aren’t jealous. He just lacks the language for the gender issues her presence raises. Nobody at the station is actually bothered by a woman taking part as one of them though.

    I can see why you’d need a translation actually. That does make sense.

    Yes, re the backlog, and some really good books on it too. It’s because I’m not getting much time at the moment. My next review is my 300th so I’ll try to make it the Prufrock – since it’s my favourite poem it seems somehow vaguely fitting since I’ve noticed a milestone of sorts.

  13. Sounds good, Max. Very much like the opening and heard good things in general. “crusting is quite horrible.’

    Will pick this up.

    Guy Savage
    I read Gone Girl. I loathed it. That’s all I have to say on that.

  14. Great review, Max. I always enjoy reading your take on a book, especially if it’s one I’ve read. I bought this in the summer – unusual for me, as hardbacks usually entail a trip to the library, but I couldn’t resist the gorgeous cover design. It’s a lovely piece of work by the publishers.
    I thought this novel very accomplished and impeccably structured. There’s something quite visceral, almost muscular, about the prose and this really pulled me into Jake’s worlds (both of them). It’s great to see it on the shortlist for Costa Book Awards as this should bring it to the attention of a wider audience. I have ‘After the Fire…’ on the shelf here, so I’m sure I’ll read it at some point next year.

  15. I’ll be glad to hear your thoughts Laurence. I’d hope you’d like it.

    Jacqui, very kind and I’m glad it’s one you’ve read. Any other themes you’d bring out or points you aren’t with me on? The cover is gorgeous, I quite agree.

    I originally considered using the word “muscular” to describe the prose, and decided not to in the end because I wasn’t quite sure I could if asked say what I meant by the word in that context. It’s interesting then that you use it (and I think you’re right to), because I think there is a sense in which it’s muscular prose but I do still find it quite hard to define what I mean by that. Perhaps a sense of physicality? That visceral sense that you refer to?

    I can see this picking up a few awards potentially. This and A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing seem to be among the big books of the year.

  16. Thanks Max, and I have to say I’m in agreement with your analysis. In terms of other themes, you’ve captured many of them, but there was an interesting dynamic between suspicion and trust in Jake’s relationship with Lloyd (the alcoholic drifter) and how this reflects back to events in Australia. You alluded to this, I think, and it’s hard to be more specific without getting into specific elements regarding the plot. Re muscularity, yes, there’s something quite physical and visceral about Wyld’s descriptions of the landscapes and surroundings, if that makes some sort of sense? Maybe it’s more to do with the tone and feeling of the book, but I felt I could see, touch and smell her settings – they seemed real and tangible to me. The opening paragraph you quoted is a great example of this, and there are many others.

    The question as to whether the book’s structure is too neat and imposes a level of artificiality is an interesting one. I found myself reflecting on a similar thought as I was nearing the end of the book and there was a sense of it starting to feel too tightly controlled. In the end though, I agree with you that the quality of Wyld’s prose and the depth she gives to Jake’s character (and the descriptions of her world) win through. The narrative threads are quite layered and nuanced (loved your origami reference) and this level of depth and subtly helps and prevents it from feeling too contrived.

    I don’t know if you’ve read The Detour by Gerbrand Bakker? Some of the elements and themes are similar, I think – an outsider seeks refuge in a remote cottage having escaped from a previous life, she wants to keep to herself, an unknown predator is threatening her geese and a young man (a stranger) arrives. Bakker does delve into Emilie’s backstory, but The Detour’s structure is less rigid and it feels a little more fluid (less constrained by a structural device) for this reason. I read the two books at around the same time and, if anything, I think ‘The Detour’ is even better than ‘All The Birds…’. Bakker really captures a sense of remoteness and isolation and his descriptions of landscape are beautiful. Also, something about Emilie’s character got under my skin and I find myself thinking about her now four or five months down the line. I can’t recommend it highly enough (if you haven’t read it) and it would make an interesting comparison with ‘All The Birds…’.

    Yes, there’s quite a buzz around ‘A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing’, isn’t there. I guess I’m going to have to read it at some point! Are you thinking of giving it a crack?

  17. Good point on suspicion and trust, I agree.

    I agree too that there is something physical, visceral, in Wyld’s descriptions so that does make sense. Like you I felt I could touch and feel the settings, tangible is a really good word for how it felt in fact.

    Control may be a point to look at going forward with Wyld’s future works. This book couldn’t be otherwise than as it is, but it would be very easy to fall into contrivance.

    I’ve not read The Detour, though I’ve heard of it. I’ll take a look again, thanks.

    I do plan to read A Girl, but I want to read a bit more Joyce first given how much of an influence he seems to be. I’ve got it both in hardcopy and kindle form, so I’ve certainly no excuse for not reading it.

  18. Well I have now read it Max, and of course, had completely forgotten that I’d read about it here! Your review is gorgeous, spot on. Now I wish I hadn’t written one myself but just pointed people here.

    I love your comment: “As a quick aside, it’s nice to have a female protagonist whose reaction to being menaced in that way is to deck the guy threatening her. Part of Jake’s problem though is that she’s much better at responding to physical challenges than she is to emotional ones.”

    I agree that despite the tightly managed structure, it doesn’t at all feel artificial.

    BTW, I believe this is her second novel, and that the one you (and I) haven’t read was her first.

  19. Just looking at the comments and came across the discussion of her name. I wondered about that too, but didn’t come up with any real answer except that she’s an outsider, and seems to have been so from her youth. Perhaps Wyld felt a male name suited that persona more (without of course making any gender assumptions!). It’s interesting given that her sister’s name is Iris. It could just be that as the second child her parents had been hoping for a boy – and she did seem to have a closeness with her father?!

  20. I often wish that when I read other people’s thoughts WG, it’s why I often try not to read others’ reviews when I’m writing my own.

    It is her second. I have the first but haven’t read it yet.

    Nice points on the name. I didn’t give that much thought, but of course I probably should have.

  21. Pingback: Looking back on 2013 | Pechorin's Journal

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