All the Birds Singing by Evie Wyld won the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2014.
The story’s narrator commented on crows singing on the first page of the story, while she was dealing with a dead sheep. Crows are a cruel bird. They will peck the eyes from a lamb while it is still alive, just because they can, and their so-called singing is a horrible noise. Consider this a warning about the sadness of this story.
The narrator is a lonely woman named Jake with a mysterious past. She is an Australian, living in isolation with her dog in a cold, wet, miserable part of England. Jake owns a sheep farm on the island, although it is unclear where she got the money to buy her farm. The story begins with Jake finding one of her sheep has been killed viciously, an event which has been happening more and more often.
The story swings back and forwards between Jake’s present in England, keeping to herself and avoiding the world, and her past in Australia. As the story unfolds it seems that Jake learned to shear from a man who was keeping her captive in the Outback, and that when she escaped she went around the shearing sheds, starting as a roustabout, then becoming a shearer, always looking over her shoulder for anyone who might have been looking for her.
I felt uneasy the whole time I was reading this story, and there is nothing in it to leave a reader feeling comfortable or happy. I actually started reading several times then stopped, and went to read something happier. Eventually I came back to All the Birds Singing in the right frame of mind to finish, and found that I couldn’t put the book down.
The story continues to unfold right up until the very end. The English part of the story is told in order of events happening, but the Australian sections are told the opposite way, ending up in Jake’s childhood. We learn where and why Jake got the terrible scars on her back and why she chose to live on the opposite side of the world, with no contact with her family apart from the occasional phone call to hear her mother’s voice but never speaking. A big mystery remains by the end of the story too, something we want to know from the start but don’t find out. While I would have liked to know the answer to this question, I can live without knowing. If the author wanted to tell me, she would have.
I felt for Jake. She is a strong character who has done everything she could to survive, regardless of why she was in the position of needing to.
All the Birds Singing is an intense novel, full of unhappy emotions, including loneliness, guilt, fear and anger. I’m glad to have finished it, because my shoulders have been up around my ears for days with the overwhelming tension of the story, but I’m really looking forward to reading more from Evie Wyld.