I’m not sure if the forthcoming 2014 North American release of Evie Wyld’s second novel, All the birds, Singing will smoke out the right reviewers. It may have to wait years for the academics to really serve it up properly. In any case, its UK and Australian release garnered much praise from reviewers this past year. But, I’m not really sure the best things about this book were properly unpacked by the newspapers. So, while my thoughts here are only that, thoughts—this is not a review—I can’t get this book out of my head so, please, allow me to set down a few nagging things for the sake of it.
On the strength of her excerpt in the recent Granta Top 40 issue, I ordered myself a copy of All the birds, Singing from the UK. As I often do, I read the book, then read a dozen reviews from around the world (largely from England and Australia.) Reassuringly, they confirmed what I’d read and thought. With a few quibbles here and there—mostly ones I didn’t share (literary admiration is soft and general; its opposite pointy and narrow)—for me the reviews all rang the same (too easy) opening bell, further alerting us to this young author as “the real thing”.
To which I would say: yep, okay, we get it; it’s there, we all see it. I would suggest she’s asking us to think now, read deeply, and to stop simply pointing.
As a novelist who, like Wyld, is also from Australia but doesn’t live there, I was easily drawn to this novel. I listened to a beautiful ABC interview she gave with Miyuki Jokiranta (gush, every author dreams of interviewers like her) and was further convinced Wyld’s was a literary mind I’d like to get to know.
This book divides its time between Australia and England. I’d describe the prose as taut and polished, rather than poetic or lyrical per se. It is, to my ear, an Australian novel (as opposed to a British one). Why say this? Well, there have been flattering comparisons to Ian McEwan and Iain Banks, but for me this is early groping, especially by English reviewers, who don’t perhaps recognize or know exactly what they are reading. The key and rhythms are not British—even the UK sections of the book are written with an Australian, i.e., an outsider’s, sensibility. So, there are more accurate, Australian, comparisons. Closer in kinship, then, is Tim Winton’s stories from The Turning or his novel The Riders (and a number of reviewers in Australia made that connection.)
But even then, it must be said, just because Wyld is exploring a male-centred, often violent, and Gothic tradition, doesn’t mean this book must be understood within the context of male writers. Where it once was man versus nature, Wyld’s it’s stepped up to: woman versus nature all-the-while escaping man.
So for me, Wyld is more a direct descendant of that other, transnational Australian writer, Janette Turner Hospital—a similar, darkened story frame, with control (at a sentence-level) to burn. What was not addressed by any of the reviews I read (even by one of my favourite poets, Kathleen Jamie), but will be (eventually) by the academics no doubt, is that surely this is a novel to read within a feminist lens. The perfectly contextualized sexual violence, itself, is a topic for thought—but more even, was the writing about sex—graphically yet without, appropriately, a trace of eroticism, romance, or pleasure. Others have the right qualifications to take a go at all this, but Wyld somehow got profoundly into the sad, brittle, but at times gorgeous pain, of her main character. Especially when the two prostitutes huddled together in their Darwin room—in one of the novel’s few tender, calm counterpoints, that showed Jake feeling something like warmth, a proto-love almost, for another person.
I was, perhaps weirdly, reminded of the surfie cult classic from the 70’s Puberty Blues (you can take the boy out of Cronulla…) Like that one, this too is a kind of emancipation novel—a word that has a resonant history in Australia. And Wyld bravely pushes it all the way, by giving mysterious physical scars to her main character Jake. When we learn how the scars came about, well, an Australian can only read these as the metaphorical scarring of history, at least of the “damned whores and god’s police” reading of it, and we feel the cat-o-nine tails, the convict lashings, being doled out to the innocent, and who must then carry this burden, all the way back to the motherland, no less. Wonderful stuff.
And, I will just say quickly, that embedded in this section of the novel is a very game play, where an aboriginal boy is—as it were—repeatedly cast against literary type. If briefly, Wyld walks right up to a very sensitive cultural and racial line here, but plays it straight and true, in part with flashes of cheeky humour (was he just taking “a” piss, or was the author taking “the” piss?), and by ensuring her boy has little real agency in the novel.
While this book could have been double the length it was likely stronger for its precision. Personally, I’m not sure she nailed the ending (she went with the tidier screenplay version, as opposed to the darker, ambiguous one for which I was rooting as the end drew closer). But, there is so much in this book that wants serious readers. As it finds its place, I hope it nestles alongside Hospital’s work as important Australian writing, by women, that addresses violence and fear and manipulation and history, but also how writerly distance and remove, make for useful ballast.