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Empathy is the Point

April 20, 2015

All the Birds, SingingEvie Wyld, All the Birds, Singing, 2013

All the Birds, Singing is a dark book, full of wrenching pain. I enjoyed it immensely.

This reading pleasure is created by Wyld’s technical mastery, which is most apparent in both the structure of the narrative and the precision of the language. The structure is unusual. A young Australian woman, Jake Whyte, is trying to escape her past, first in remote Western Australia, then on an island off the British coast. She narrates her story in alternating chapters – odd-numbered ones on the island in the present, even-numbered in Australia in the past.

The Australian story is told backwards, with each chapter further back in the past than the previous one. This creates suspense, as we are driven to read on to find out what happened to Jake that led to her need to escape. These chapters are in the present tense, which thrusts us into her boots during the tense episodes that bedevil her flight.

The island chapters of the present are narrated forward and in the past tense, where the tension is created more by her fears and the question of whether the island’s threats are real or imagined – or both.

Evie Wyld

Evie Wyld (Photo: Random House)

This chapter scheme sounds confusing, but it’s not. We soon twig that the Australian story is being told backwards. It is the right way to tell this story, the perfect match of structure and narrative.

The language is a delight. Wyld gives depth to character and story by using well-chosen words and no more of them than necessary. Mandy Sayer comments that Wyld has “discovered and developed what Hemingway once coined ‘the aesthetics of omission’ – the practice of creating meaning and even suspense by what is deliberately left out of the story.”

Jake Whyte tells us little about herself, yet we feel we know her intimately, because of what she does, and how she reacts to other people. She does let us into some of her thoughts, but these are mainly about what is happening and what she is doing. We know she is plagued by fear, but we don’t know the grounds for that fear until late in the book. There is little introspection – the closest is when she mentally makes a contract with her dead father, or when she allows a (temporary) lover to believe that the scars on her back make her a victim – a “lie”, but at this point we don’t know why it is a lie.

The sparsest hints enable readers to fill in the gaps in the narrative themselves. In the first chapter, a neighbour comments that it’s three years since she came to the island, “arm in a sling”. In the second chapter, chronologically the last of the Australian narrative, we find out why her arm was in a sling, and that allows us to fill in the gap between the Australian and British parts of the story.

Imagery is another gift to the reader. She paints word pictures, and we can see the shearing shed where Jake works in Western Australia; we can see and hear the crows mocking her as she finds a dead sheep on the island.

Sheep Waiting to Be Shorn (Photo: Andy Farnsworth, CC)

Sheep Waiting to Be Shorn (Photo: Andy Farnsworth, CC)

But Wyld has more than writing skill. In a recent interview she said, “I think empathy is the point. To try and understand people more and to draw out every possible angle for what they might be feeling.” Wyld has the imagination required for such empathy, to create characters we feel for or react to – both human and animal. The two dogs in the book have very different personalities. I loved her dog (“Dog”), and hated Kelly, who belonged to an abuser and was a villain herself: “She’s not like a dog really; she’s more disapproving than a dog.”

Much of book’s darkness lies in the portrayal of male violence against women and human mistreatment of animals. In particular, Jake’s time in Western Australia, first as a sex worker, then trapped by an abuser, then working in a shearing shed, conveyed what it is like to be a woman in a hyper-masculine world.

Yet the darkness is leavened with humour throughout, usually associated with the idiosyncrasies of the human or animal characters (especially Dog), but sometimes arising from outright farce. Amongst the awfulness of Jake’s time as a sex worker are some hilarious scenes.

Structure, language, imagery, empathy, the human condition, humour: All the Birds, Singing is a worthy winner of the 2014 Miles Franklin Literary Award.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 21, 2015 12:20 am

    Ah, another masochist Bryce! I really liked this book too. I loved the structure – clever and effective. And her language is spare but intense. I like that Hemingway quote “aesthetics of omission”. Must remember that.

    • Bryce permalink*
      April 21, 2015 9:14 am

      Yes, Sue, the book shows just how much can be achieved by omission. In my own writing I’ve been trying to cure myself of my tendency to tell too much, and Evie Wyld has provided a good lesson in how to do it.

      • April 21, 2015 9:27 am

        I think even as a blog writer I try to prune and prune, though not always with a lot of success. I greatly admire spare writing!

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