A Gem from Down Under

I’ve been meaning to do this for a while, but got distracted by more controversial subjects. So let me gratefully relapse into the unexceptionable task of recommending a terrific young novelist. I hadn’t heard of Evie Wyld until last winter, when I joined a public radio discussion of novels featured in the 2015 Tournament of Books. In a competition that included bestselling author David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, and Marlon James’ Brief History of Seven Killings, Wyld’s dark-horse novel, All the Birds, Singing, won a lot of fans.

Wyld, who is thirty-five, grew up in Australia and in London, where she went to university and where she currently runs a small bookstore. Her first novel, After the Fire, a Still Small Voice, was shortlisted for the IMPAC Dublin literary award (the biggest literary prize after the Nobel), and won her a place on Granta Magazine’s list of Best Young British Novelists. All the Birds, Singing won her another slew of awards. Still early in her career, she’s shaping up to be the kind of writer who gets great reviews, racks up prizes, and sometimes doesn’t sell very much. But Anthony Doerr was that kind of writer, too, until he wrote All the Light.

All the Birds, Singing is the rare novel that’s artfully constructed, trenchantly insightful about human nature and predicaments, and deeply moving. All that, and it’s a mystery, too. Wyld interweaves two first-person narratives told by the same woman, Jake Whyte. One strand, in the present day, details the attacks made by a mysterious predator on Whyte’s sheep on the remote island farm off the coast of England, where she is living alone and lonely, for reasons that are themselves a mystery, in her middle age. The second strand takes up her story at some much earlier date, years ago in Australia, where we find her working as a roustabout sheep shearer in a team of traveling farm workers. The temporal structure of the novel is notably intricate: the present section, in England, is set in the past tense, and its events proceed forward in a conventional manner; the past sections, in Australia, are set in the present tense, and proceed backward – digging, bit by bit, deeper into Jake’s suffering past, in which she has been homeless, endured other bitter hardships I will not disclose here, and received dreadful wounds on her back. What are these scars? Why did she flee home?

Via this bifurcated narrative Wyld sets up parallel mysteries to be uncovered – the predator on the sheep farm, and whatever predator injured Jake long ago – and then sets the them in motion, one moving forward and the other backward, in alternating chapters. This complex storytelling architecture is no mere showing-off, but rather an ingenious way to make narrative serve her themes. Sentence for sentence, Wyld’s pitch-perfect writing also brings those themes to bear; in a book about victimization, her spare but darkly dreamy prose cues up an atmosphere of isolation and pervasive menace. The novel’s moodiness is alluring and ominous.

By its end, All the Birds has succeeded in fashioning a profound meditation on suffering and memory. Puzzle pieces are set into place, one after another; thoughts that Jake has today, maxims and memories, eventually trace to events and influences long ago. Wyld is paying attention everywhere, and her novel, after starting slowly, gathers terrific momentum.  There is a nominal mystery out there – what is the beast? – but the real mystery is, how does a life get made?  All the Birds gets its claws into your imagination and won’t let go. Exploring how memory constructs a self around psychic injuries and losses, the novel itself is brilliantly constructed to illuminate Kirkegaard’s observation that “life must be  lived forward, but can only be understood in reverse.” 

Finally, Wyld is a terrifically instructive writer for anyone interested in watching a novelist grapple with the same themes from one book to the next – and finally figure out how to handle them. Her ambitious first novel, After the Fire, a Still Small Voice, delved into three generations of men in an Australian family and the wars they served in, and it too used a narrative that leapt around among divergent time frames. The result was both gritty and in places profusely lyrical... and also uneven and not wholly successful. And now, in her next book, Wyld takes the same obsession with time, trauma and memory – and nails it. All the Birds is quite similar to After the Fire, but significantly better. As such it offers a textbook example of a writer zeroing in on her preoccupations while honing her skills and perfecting her art.

Wyld’s website is here. A New York Times review of All the Birds by Maile Meloy, herself an accomplished fiction writer as well,  is here.  The radio roundtable I took part in is here.

Enjoy!

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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