All the Birds, Singing
is a 2013 novel by Evie Wyld, an Australian-born author who lives in the United Kingdom. It follows Jake Whyte, a sheep farmer on a remote British island; something has been killing her sheep, and her investigation sparks memories of traumatic secrets from her past life in Australia. All the Birds, Singing
is the author’s second book, building on the success of her multi-award-winning debut After the Fire, A Still Small Voice
(2009).All the Birds, Singing
opens not with birdsong but with crows “rasping.” They are feasting on the remains of a dead and gutted sheep belonging to Jake Whyte, the novel’s narrator. She chases off the crows and examines the corpse. The cause of death is unclear, but the loss of her sheep makes Jake very anxious: she has reason to believe that someone might be stalking her.
The novel progresses in alternating chapters. The sequence of chapters set in the present moves forward in time as Jake investigates the death of her sheep. In between these chapters, another sequence is set in Jake’s past, and these chapters move backward in time, taking us gradually back to the original trauma which put Jake’s life on its unusual trajectory.
In the present-day story, Jake is living on a remote, unnamed island off the coast of Britain. She is alone, except for a collie called “Dog,” and she likes it that way. There are secrets in her past that she doesn’t like to think about. She has deep scars on her back.
At first, she suspects that local kids are behind the sheep killing. Bored kids gather on a nearby stretch of road to smoke and harass passers-by: they often pick on Jake because she’s a woman living alone, engaged in a trade which otherwise only the island’s men pursue. As Jake follows up on this suspicion, she meets the local kids one by one and discovers that they are sad and pitiable, as she herself was as a teenager. Questioning a girl who works at the local market, she notices that the girl has bruises on her face, and hardly knows how to count. She concludes that if these kids had killed her sheep, they would certainly have left evidence.
Jake talks to the police, but they are not interested. The sergeant condescends to Jake and suggests that runaway dogs might be responsible.
All the while, in the back of Jake’s mind the suspicion has been growing that someone from her past in Australia might be the culprit. She catches a glimpse of a man apparently loitering near her property, and she hears that a stranger has been seen on the island, wearing foreign-looking clothes and speaking in an unfamiliar accent. One day, Jake finds a man sleeping in her barn. She is shocked and angry—but he is a stranger, Lloyd. He asks her if he can stay on the farm and help her with her work. Reflecting that he might provide some extra security, Jake agrees.
When she learns that Samson, the son of her farm’s former owner Don, has a history of mental illness and arson, she wonders if he might be to blame, but this suspicion is derailed when she catches sight of an enormous, predatory animal on her property. The animal is so large that she thinks she must have imagined it, and she begins to wonder if the secrets of her past have made her paranoid.
Interspersed with this narrative are flashbacks to Jake’s life in Australia. These move backward in time, beginning with the event that finally precipitated her flight to England. She was working at a remote sheep shearing station in Western Australia, sharing a shower with a huge, poisonous spider. She relished the work of shearing and felt safe at the station until Clare, the friend of a co-worker of Jake’s called Greg, dug into Jake’s past and found out that she had worked as a prostitute. Greg used this information to try to blackmail Jake for sex. Jake knocked him out cold and left for England.
Jake ended up at the shearing station after running away from Otto, her ex-boyfriend. She had initially believed that Otto was kind and nurturing, but he gradually became angry, possessive, and controlling. Eventually, Jake came to suspect that Otto had killed his former wife. (Present-day Jake imagines Otto might have pursued her to the island).
Jake met Otto while working as a prostitute. He was one of her clients. During this period, Jake made friends with another prostitute, Karen, who dreamed of one day moving to England. Throughout this time, Jake moved from place to place, on the run from something.
Finally, we learn that as a teenager, Jake fell in love with a boy called Denver. When she discovered that Denver was in love with someone else, she began playing with matches, seeking attention, until one day she accidentally started a fire that destroyed half her hometown and killed several people. This is the secret at the heart of Jake’s mysterious trajectory.
The novel closes in the present day. Jake is worried that her paranoia about the secrets of her past might be affecting her mental health. She keeps seeing and hearing the enormous animal, but Lloyd never seems to. Then one day, as they drive together into town, Lloyd spots the enormous predator too.All the Birds, Singing
explores the way past trauma can set the course of a life, and continue to haunt the present. The novel won the 2013 Encore Award for an outstanding second novel and the 2014 Miles Franklin Award.