From one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists, an emotionally powerful, award-winning novel about an outsider haunted by an inescapable past.
Jake Whyte has retreated to a remote farmhouse on a craggy British island, a place of ceaseless rains and battering winds, with only her collie and a flock of sheep as companions. But something—or someone—has begun picking off her sheep one by one. There are foxes in the woods, a strange man wandering the island, and rumors of a mysterious beast prowling at night. And there is Jake’s relentless past—one she tried to escape thousands of miles away and years ago, concealed in stubborn silence and isolation and the scars that stripe her back. With exceptional artistry, All the Birds, Singing plumbs a life of fierce struggle and survival, sounding depths of unexpected beauty and hard-won redemption.
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’d been up that morning, before the light came through, out there, talking to myself, telling the dog about the things that needed doing as the blackbirds in the hawthorn started up. Like a mad woman, listening to her own voice, the wind shoving it back down my throat and hooting over my open mouth like it had done every morning since I moved to the island. With the trees rattling in the copse and the sheep blaring out behind me, the same trees, the same wind and sheep.
That made two deaths in a month. The rain started to come down, and a sudden gust of wind flung sheep shit at the back of my neck so it stung. I pulled up my collar and shielded my eyes with my hand.
Cree-cra, cold, cree-cra, cold.
“What are you laughing at?” I shouted at the crows and lobbed a stone at them. I wiped my eyes with the back of my hand and breathed in and out heavily to get rid of the blood smell. The crows were silent. When I turned to look, five of them sat in a row on the same branch, eyeing me but not speaking. The wind blew my hair in my eyes.
The farm shop at Marling had a warped and faded sign at the foot of its gate that read FREE BABY GUINEA PIGS. There was never any trace of the free guinea pigs and I had passed the point of being able to ask. The pale daughter of the owner was there, doing a crossword. She looked up at me, then looked back down like she was embarrassed.
“Hi,” I said.
She blushed but gave me the smallest of acknowledgements. She wore a thick green tracksuit and her hair was in a ponytail. Around her eyes was the faint redness that came after a night of crying or drinking.
Normally the potatoes from that place were good, but they all gave a little bit when I picked them up. I put them back down and moved over to tomatoes, but they weren’t any good either. I looked up out the window to where the farm’s greenhouse stood and saw the glass was all broken.
“Hey,” I said to the girl, who when I turned around was already looking at me, sucking the end of her pencil. “What happened to your greenhouse?”
“The wind,” she said, taking her pencil to the side of her mouth just for a moment. “Dad said to say the wind blew it in.”
I could see the glass scattered outside where normally they kept pots of ugly pink cyclamen with a sign that said THE JEWEL FOR YOUR WINTER GARDEN. Just black earth and glass now.
“Wow,” I said.
“Things always get mad on New Year’s Eve,” said the girl in an older voice that surprised both of us. She blushed deeper and turned her eyes back to her crossword. In the greenhouse, the man who normally ran the shop sat with his head in his hands.
I took some oranges and leeks and lemons to the counter. I didn’t need anything, the trip was more about the drive than the supplies. The girl dropped her pencil out of her mouth and started to count oranges, but wasn’t sure of herself and started again a few times over. There was a smell of alcohol about her, masked by too much perfume. A hangover then. I imagined an argument with her father. I looked up at the greenhouse again, the man in it still with his head in his hands, the wind blowing through.
“Are there nine there?” she asked, and even though I hadn’t counted as I put them in the basket I said yes. She tapped things into the till.
“Must be hard to lose the greenhouse,” I said, noticing a small blue bruise at the girl’s temple. She didn’t look up.
“It’s not so bad. We should have had an order over from the mainland, but the ferry’s not going today.”
“The ferry’s not going?”
“Weather’s too bad,” she said, again in that old voice that embarrassed us both.
“I’ve never known that to happen.”
“It happens,” she said, putting my oranges in one bag and the rest in another. “They built the new boats too big so they aren’t safe in bad weather.”
“Do you know what the forecast is?”
The girl glanced up at me quickly and lowered her eyes again.
“No. Four pounds twenty please.” She slowly counted out my money. It took two goes to get the change right. I wondered what new thing she’d heard about me. It was time to leave, but I didn’t move.
“So what’s with the free guinea pigs?”
The flush came back to her face. “They’ve gone. We gave them to my brother’s snake. There were loads.”
The girl smiled. “It was years ago.”
“Sure,” I said.
The girl put the pencil back in her mouth and her eyes fluttered back down to her crossword. She was just colouring in the white squares, it turned out.
In the truck, I found I had left the oranges in the shop. I looked out of my rear-view mirror at the smashed greenhouse and saw the man inside standing up with his hands on his hips looking at me. I locked the doors and drove away without the oranges.
It started to rain heavily, and I turned up the heating and put the wipers on full speed. We drove past the spot I usually stopped to walk Dog and he sat in the passenger seat and stared at me hard, and every time I turned to look at him he put his ears up, like we were mid-conversation and I was avoiding his look. “So what?” I said. “You’re a dog.” And then he turned around and looked out the window.
Midway home it caught up with me and I pulled over into the entrance to an empty field. Dog gazed stoically out the window, still and calm, and I pressed my thumb into the bridge of my nose to try and take away the prickling, clung on to the skin of my chest with the nails of my other hand to melt away that old -thudding ache that came with losing a sheep, a bead of blood landing in an open eye. I cried drily, honking and with my mouth open, rocking the truck and feeling something grappling around inside me getting no closer to coming out. Have a good cry; it was the kind of thing Mum’d say to a triplet in the hope a visit to the hospital wasn’t necessary. Like the time Cleve fell out of a tree and cried it out, and we found out later he had a broken arm. But there was nothing good in my crying—it prevented me from breathing, it hurt. I stopped once my nose began to bleed, cleaned it up with the shammy I used on the days the windows were iced on the inside and drove home, calmly. On the Military Road near to the turning home, some teenagers fondled about at the bus stop. When they saw me coming one of the boys pretended to put something in his mouth, another mounted him from behind and humped him while he mimed throwing a lasso. The girls laughed and gave me the finger. As I rounded the corner the boy with the lasso dropped his trousers and showed his white arse.
Excerpted from All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld. Copyright © 2014 by Evie Wyld. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
EVIE WYLD grew up in Australia and London, where she currently resides. Her first novel, After the Fire, a Still Small Voice, won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and a Betty Trask Award, and All the Birds, Singing won the Miles Franklin Literary Award and the Encore Award for Best Second Novel. Wyld has also been short-listed for the Orange Award for New Writers, the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize, the James Tait Black Prize, and the Costa Novel Award, and long-listed for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.
**One of the Best Books of the Year in the Guardian, New Statesman, Independent, Observer**
**Shortlisted for the James Tait Black Prize, and the Costa Award for Best Novel**
**Winner of the Encore Award for Best Second Novel**
**Winner of the Miles Franklin Literary Award**
“Daring and fierce. . . . From the very first sentence of Wyld’s brilliantly unsettling novel, you’re thrust into a world of violence, dread, and psychological mystery. . . . The writing flood[s] every page with menace.” —The Boston Globe
“Swift and assured and emotionally wrenching. You won’t only root for Jake, you’ll see the world, hard facts and all, more clearly through her telling.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Broodingly lyrical. . . . Casts a spellbinding breadcrumb trail back in time to reveal the origins of Jake’s banishment—and the darker mysteries of human nature.” —Vogue
“Purely gorgeous. . . . Wyld ramps up the tension. . . . There’s love as well as dread in this book, a surprising sort of love—the best kind of all.” —The Washington Post
“Gloriously gruesome [and] lushly visceral. . . . To say that Wyld’s writing makes the art of sheep shearing come alive for the reader may not sound like a particular compliment, but oh, it is—she makes it sing with flea-coated, dung-crusted eloquence. . . . Half of you wants to race through to find out what happens, half wants to pause over the dark, clotted sentences. And then the state of suspense becomes almost unbearable. . . . The final revelation, when it comes, is explosive.” —NPR.org
“Dark and wickedly captivating. . . . It’s nearly impossible not to get swept up in the game of merging the two stories by piecing together each clue Wyld keeps stashed away to reveal at the most opportune moment. . . . Think Room or Winter’s Bone-style creepy. . . . A gripping novel.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“A suspenseful and melancholy novel. . . . Wyld [demonstrates] masterful control. There are also surprising moments of lightness—the protagonist’s dark humor, the author’s unsentimental reverence for the natural world.” —The New Yorker
“Utterly gripping. . . . The book has the brisk pacing of a well-thumbed pocket paperback found in a summer cottage, and yet it’s the sort of book that gets listed as a best book of the year. . . . The mystery of what’s going on with the sheep in All the Birds, Singing, were it the book’s only subject, would make for a fun read on its own. But the sheep are only the beginning.” —Salon
“An atmosphere pungent with menace and panicked uncertainty. . . . Wyld teasingly leads readers to the mysterious incident Jake is trying to escape . . . Wyld keeps her readers in a blinkered state and then spooks them.” —The Wall Street Journal
“Tantalizes. . . . The prose maintains a fine-tuned ominous mood. . . . The most impressive aspect of the novel is its structure.” —The New York Times
“Wyld displays a fierce command of language. . . . She tackles a variety of difficult themes—memory and trauma chief among them—with considerable care.” —The Daily Beast
“A tremendous achievement . . . A dark, powerfully disturbing and beautifully observed story . . . almost Nabokovian in its structural intricacy.” —William Boyd, New Statesman
“Outstanding . . . Evie Wyld is the real thing . . . She reconfigures the conventions of storytelling with a sure-footedness and ambition which belie her age . . . Quite as good as Ian McEwan’s early fiction.” —The Spectator
“Extraordinarily accomplished, one of those books that tears around in your cerebellum like a dark firework, and which, upon finishing, you immediately want to pick up again.” —Financial Times
“An intensely involving tale of survival, shot through with Wyld’s distinctive wit . . . An indelible and atmospheric novel that will have the hairs on the back of your neck working overtime.” —Daily Mail
“For once, the hype matches the talent . . . Wyld’s writing seems to come from somewhere deep, somewhere a little bit unnerving.” —The Sunday Times (London)
“Vividly drawn . . . When the birds do ‘sing,’ and Jake’s primal tragedy is revealed, it is clever and very unexpected indeed.” —The Guardian
1. The story opens with Jake’s present life. We learn about her past in a backwards progression. How does this affect your reading of the book?
2. Jake lives alone and away from others in a self-imposed hermitage: from fear, for protection, out of habit. What is the difference between being alone and being lonely? Do you think Jake is lonely?
3. Jake has run away from home, family, and safety to escape something terrible she has done. What do you think the consequences would have been if she had stayed?
4. Have you ever kept an experience in your past a secret from people you know? What does keeping secrets do to a person?
5. Is Jake’s terror of being caught in proportion to what she has done? Does the fear get bigger the farther away she goes? Will it ever go away?
6. The crows calling over the mangled sheep on the island, the carrier pigeon that Jake squeezes just a bit too hard, and, of course, the birds from the final passage of Jake’s revealed past: within this work, birds are often associated with death. What other symbols do you find in this story?
7. Describe Jake’s relationship with Karen. Who is stronger? Who is saving whom?
8. How did Jake end up with Otto? When/why/how does he change?
9. Why does Jake stay with Otto for so long? What do you think would happen if he ever did find her, and do you think he’s actively looking?
10. While at the sheep ranch, Jake finds temporary safety with Greg. What makes him different from the men she’s known to that point? Why does she leave him?
11. On the island, Jake visits some of the local places. There’s the small shop to buy oranges, the teahouse for a Devon cream: What does Jake get from these places? Do you think it makes a difference that these shopkeepers are women?
12. While Jake is on the ranch in Australia, one of the rams is killed by an animal, and Jake later sees a dark shape dart into her room. It is doglike, and she immediately thinks of Otto’s dog, Kelly. How does this fear follow her to England?
13. While Jake is in England, something is killing her sheep. The reader never finds out what it is, but in the end, Lloyd sees it, too. Is it real? What do you think it is?
14. One of the shearers kills a dying ram: “One second horribly wounded, feeling flies lay their eggs in your flesh and watching the currawong circle, and the next, in a flash, all is safe. I will learn to fire a gun, I think, they are the answer” (p. 25). In what other ways does Jake try to find safety?
15. Discuss the character of Lloyd. Who is he and what does he want? How does he affect Jake?
16. Why does Jake let Lloyd stay with her?
17. The hammer under the bed, the axe by the refrigerator, the gun in the cupboard, the walking stick by the door. Can these things protect Jake from what she fears?
18. When all is revealed at the end, from the truth behind her scars to her own responsibility in the affair, how does that fit in with the Jake you know already?
19. What is Jake most afraid of? The past? Otto? Guilt? Herself?
20. What do you think Jake is ultimately looking for?