All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld

All the BirdsAn Australian woman named Jake Whyte has bought a farm on an unnamed remote island somewhere off the coast of England and although she has lived there alone for years, it is as if she has only just arrived, there is reticence, suspicion, distrust, an unwillingness to engage, to form new relationships or retain old ones.

In the opening paragraphs she visits a farm shop and we don’t get any sense that they know each other, there is no acknowledgment of neighbourly acquaintance. She is suffering from the violent loss of yet another of her 50 sheep that she farms with the help of her dog, Dog.

As the present day narrative progresses towards the mystery of the creature that is mauling her flock of sheep, alternate chapters reveal her past in Australia, from a point some years ago when she was working in a shearing gang back through a year or so living in remote countryside with a man, to her adolescent years and the significant event that caused her to run the first time. Is she a fugitive?

I was intrigued by the references to farm life and her stint working in a shearing gang, experiences I am familiar with. I grew up on a large sheep farm, and remember the job of ‘rousie’ (a wool handler) as we call it in New Zealand, not only working during school holidays helping out at home, but I spent a summer when I was 17 working for a local shearing gang on other farms in the area, although it did not involve handing the sheep to the shearer and I couldn’t quite get my head around how anyone could do that for four shearers without getting in the way.

Being a rousie was the most physically demanding job I have ever had (more so than the summer picking pumpkins, another in a vegetable patch, the kiwifruit orchard and that unforgettable summer job in a large freezing works/slaughterhouse).

Working in a shearing gang can feel a little like qualifying for an Olympic event, because while the rousie, responsible for removing the wool off the floor out of the way of the shearer as it falls from the sheep, separating the clean from the dirty wool, is paid by the hour, the shearer is paid by the sheep/lamb.

The more sheep they can shear, the more they will earn and there are indeed big competitions and world records (see David Fagan below) for those who can shear a sheep the fastest, without nicking or cutting them –something the farmer keeps an eye on when he releases the shorn sheep from the pen, there’ll be a few harsh words to any shearer increasing his rate at the expense of bloodying those precious ewes.

The photos below are taken from a visit to my father’s farm three years ago, now that he has retired, he created this one stand woolshed by converting part of an old cowshed.  The shearer shears, while Grandpa explains to the children what happens.

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The female narrator of Evie Wyld’s novel is tough, to be a female sheep shearer is as rare as Scottish sumo wrestling and not for the faint-hearted. Gender demarcation lines in the shearing shed haven’t changed much over the last century.

“The shed smells good. Sweat and dung, lanolin and turps. I can’t imagine being away from it.”

Ironically for all her distrust, she does allow a complete stranger to take up residence for the few days over which the story is told. He is something of a metaphor for her tendency to succumb to the one impulsive act that in her past has lead her astray and required an escape.

In that respect it could be a coming-of-age story, but there is much in terms of her character that is stunted, damaged, unresolved, that I am not sure she has transformed much, if at all by the end of the novel. It shows how an unresolved past will continue to haunt the present, if not healed.

It was an interesting read though somewhat unfulfilling for me, I had read quite a lot about it so perhaps I had higher expectations or maybe it was because I was less tolerant of the controlled narrative, I don’t mind the presence of a narrative framework as long as it doesn’t impose too much on the reading experience.

The writing was excellent and often that can be enough when the threads of a narrative don’t tie up as we want them to and certainly I am interested in reading more of her work, she is a talented writer and was worthy candidate for the Baileys Women’s Prize, though sadly this title did not make it to the shortlist.

Further Viewing

The History of Sheep Shearing in New Zealand – a wonderful short film from the NZ archives demonstrating the shearing technique.

The Golden Shears – the Olympics of Sheep Shearing – David Fagan, world record holder, 14 seconds.

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

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15 thoughts on “All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld

  1. “to be a female sheep shearer is as rare as Scottish sumo wrestling and not for the faint-hearted” (love that).

    Must admit I was a bit distracted by those glorious curls on the children, and speaking of shearing, I still mourn the day when my son sheared off his own similarly glorious ones. Enjoy them while they last! 🙂

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    • Thank you for the compliment, sumo wrestling came to mind as I recently it has become a dying art/sport now in Japan and ironically it is dominated by foreign wrestlers, though I am sure there can’t be too many in the northern climes of Scotland.

      Blessed or cursed with curls, for now they are there to stay, I think my son has had them shorn so many times that he may want to keep them forever. 🙂 Fingers crossed.

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  2. This sounds like a fascinating book, Claire. I’m more fascinated by the fact that you have had this experience too. I loved looking at the expressions of your children as they watched the shearing operation! 🙂

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    • Yes, I noticed that when I resurrected these photos, you can almost smell the pungent odour through their expressions, at least I can, they spark off memories I guess. Those 5am starts and long days in the noise and smell of the woolshed are long gone for me, mere recollections now, though I do miss the sight of sheep in the paddocks and inhabiting the countryside, they are extremely rare to see in the south of France!

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  3. Wonderful review, Claire! I love the premise, and I am sorry you didn’t like it as much as you had hoped to, though Evie Wyld’s prose is beautiful. I am tempted to read this book.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences on sheep shearing and for sharing the pictures and the video. I loved the pictures and enjoyed watching the video. Sheep shearing looks like lots of hard work and it looks like it is also something which can be done only manually and has to be done carefully. It must have been quite a fascinating experience when you worked for shearing gang during you school days in summer.

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    • Thanks Vishy, I wish it could have been otherwise, and I hope I don’t put anyone off from finding out for themselves, most people have enjoyed this book.

      I am glad you enjoyed the pics and video, it is indeed hard work and I’m not sure it is something I am fascinated by as I lived too close to it and know the environment too well, what was more fascinating for me was talking about it to friends who thought like you that it was something fascinating – how the ordinary can become the extraordinary. If I am really honest, I would say I probably came to detest working in the woolshed and it’s no surprise I live many, many miles away from it now, life on a working farm is tough work and while I love to visit, it is not something I ever wanted to live again or work on again as an adult. But for childhood, it was the best.

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  4. Pingback: Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2014 | Word by Word

  5. It sounds like this book didn’t make your shortlist either! The author is living and telling the story. Was there no other point of view in the book, for instance the ‘complete stranger’?

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    • There is the present story of the menacing presence of something that is mauling the sheep and invading her peace of mind (and perhaps imagination) and then the slow revelation of her past, which accounts for her present state of mind and actions. The acceptance of the stranger is a sign of change.

      It’s probably best to read a few other reviews to understand it.Most of the blogs I read have given it 4 stars, so I’m a bit of an anomaly. 🙂

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  6. I loved your review and the memories of life growing up – some of which I share. I love the woolshed environment with the excitement of the shearing gang at work. I have spent many hard days working with them to get the job done and maybe now because I have a vested interest in what is happening it is much more enjoyable. And because once our shed is done that is it for me! Your writing style is great Claire and I would love to read your version of life growing up. 🙂

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