Books: All the Birds, Singing

All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld
Published April 15, 2014

All the Birds, Singing is not a bad book, it’s just emphatically not my cup of tea. While I appreciated the author’s atmospheric setting and the way she plays with gender roles, I was ultimately put off by the graphic depictions of animal deaths, and found the ending confusing and unsatisfying.

The novel centers around Jake Whyte, a sheep farmer who lives in self-imposed isolation on a rugged British island with only a flock of sheep and a collie named “Dog” for company. When someone, or something, begins to pick off her sheep, Jake’s search for the culprit brings her into contact with her neighbours, and forces her to confront the mysterious past she’s been running from. Jake’s past is slowly revealed in flashback chapters that occur in reverse chronological order to answer questions such as why is Jake estranged from her family? And how did she come to have the scars on her back?

Wyld is at her most effective in creating an atmospheric setting, that highlights the vague sense of unease underlying the book. The craggy coast feels appropriately desolate, and reflects Jake’s state of being. I also really liked the dynamic between Jake and the stranger who becomes a part of her life, Lloyd. She gives him a place to stay and he, in turn, provides help with tasks on the farm. The development of their friendship feels patient and organic, as it has to be when Jake has been living a self-sufficient existence and carries baggage from her past.

The gender dynamics at play in the novel are also really interesting. All the Birds, Singing was this month’s choice for the book club I’m in. Interestingly enough it reminded me of our last read, American War, in that they both play with gender roles. Jake has a more masculine build, and goes by a typically male name. She works manual labor jobs, including shearing sheep. When Lloyd arrives in her life, he tidies the farmhouse and sets a welcoming blaze in the fireplace while she tends to the sheep.

Equal parts literary fiction and thriller, All the Birds, Singing is definitely outside my genre comfort zone. Here’s the thing: I don’t read a lot of literary fiction to begin with, but when I love a work of literary fiction, it usually has flowing, moving prose, and delves deeply into the minds of its characters. All the Birds, Singing doesn’t tick either box. Wyld tries to provide insight into Jake’s mind, and even writes using a first-person perspective, but because Jake is so closed off and the narrative keeps her at arm’s length from the reader in order to slowly reveal her past, I don’t think it really succeeds. Wyld also writes with shorter, more concise and contemporary prose than I typically prefer from a work of literary fiction.

I wasn’t expecting All The Birds, Singing to be so blunt in its depictions of both sex and animal slaughter. The off-putting and not at all romanticized descriptions of sex fit the story Wyld’s telling, but I found the descriptions of animal death to be unnecessarily brutal.

Without spoiling anything, this is the sort of book where I read the last page (without knowing it was the last page since there were a few left for acknowledgements), flipped to the next page and thought, ‘oh, that was it.’ It ends very abruptly and without a lot of answers, which I found deeply unsatisfying.

Just because the book doesn’t fit my personal preferences doesn’t mean it won’t appeal to other readers though. All the Birds, Singing appears to be a divisive work, and I suspect others will get more out of it than I did.

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