2013, 229 p.
Well, it’s won the Miles Franklin. The author was included on the once a decade Granta Best of Young British Novelists List. Her earlier book After the Fire, A Still Small Voice was acclaimed everywhere. So why was I underwhelmed by All the Birds, Singing?
It certainly starts with a jolt:
Another sheep, mangled and bled out, her innards not yet crusting and the vapours rising from her like a steamed pudding. Crows, their beaks shining, strutting and rasping, and when I waved my stick they flew to the trees and watched, flaring out their wings, singing, if you could call it that. I shoved my boot in Dog’s face to stop him taking a string of her away with him as a souvenir, and he kept close by my side as I wheeled the carcass out of the field and down into the woolshed. (p.229)
Jake is a sheep farmer on a remote, unnamed British Island, where she lives in a dank farmhouse with only Dog for company. We do not know how she came to be there, and why she is there unfolds gradually during the book. It’s a visceral book, with not only carcasses of sheep and the bloodied life on the land, but the bodily violence of her other life- the one before this- as an abused prostitute in remote outback Australia.
The book is told in alternating chapters, with her life on the island told in first person past tense, and the Australian chapters told in first person present tense. It took some time into the book for me to realize that the Australian chapters were being narrated in reverse chronology. And so the author juggles two questions from the reader: ‘what happens next?’ as Jake gradually opens herself up to the company of an itinerant rambler who somehow ends up staying at the farm, and ‘what happened before?’ to bring her to such a lonely, cold and harsh environment.
The author is a master of setting. The whipping rain and inky darkness of the island is a stark contrast to the dessicated, searing light of the outback that opens the book. The motif of birds runs throughout the book like a soundtrack.
Part of my problem with this book might have been that I read it so quickly after finishing After the Fire, a Small Still Voice. When I look back at my review of After the Fire, I find that I could apply most of my observations about that book to this one as well. It’s almost the same story, with variations. Both books interweave two narratives. Both involve trauma and separateness that is heightened by isolation. In both, the setting is rendered carefully. Even the titles are structurally similar and almost interchangeable. Yes, there are differences- there are two characters in the first book and one in the second; the first book deals with the issue of masculinity, whereas there is a female main character in the second. But I just couldn’t shake the feeling that I was reading variations on the same basic structure. Is this deliberate? Are these books elaborations on the same structure, rendered with different characters and scenarios? Is this part of a bigger project?
This year I didn’t get round to reading the other short-listed titles for the Miles Franklin. I think that I might just have to think “Well, interesting choice….”
Posted to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014
Interesting RJ. Clearly I enjoyed it a lot more than you. I did clue into the narrative structure pretty quickly though, which might have helped. I haven’t read her first one, but I’m not sure similarity would worry me. Some authors revisit similar subject matter/concerns in several books, like Jane Austen and Edith Wharton. Other writers seem to vary their books more, like Margaret Atwood (speculative fiction, general fiction, historical fiction) or Peter Carey (a lot of variety in style/form). I enjoy both types of writers (as long as I enjoy each work, of course!)
I’ll be interested to see what you think when/if you read her first book, because I know that structure is one of the things that you look at in your reading. I haven’t read any interviews where she says it, but I wondered if she’s consciously deploying a similar structure in a variety of settings and characters to see how it plays out. I must admit that both books have garnered almost universal praise, so I’m clearly outnumbered!
Would love to get to it one day but don’t hold your breath. So MUCH to read. You aren’t the only one not to like her either – e.g. Lisa thought this one was dreary. I loved the writing, the language, and the way she unfolded the story forwards and backwards. I’m intrigued that some reviews focused a lot on the suspense of who/what was killing her sheep in England but I barely focused on that issue. I’m clearly not a reader of suspect or plot driven books!
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