All the Birds, Singing – Evie Wyld

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.

All the Birds, Singing opens with our unnamed (as yet) female narrator discovering her second dead sheep in a month. She is a sheep farmer on a remote (also unnamed) British island where she keeps herself to herself having only a dog, named Dog, for company. She thinks the killings are being carried out by the local teenagers. Don, another farmer and the person she bought the cottage from, thinks another animal is taking the pickings from an already dead sheep, ‘But I’ve never seen anything round here flense an animal like that’.

As a reader, we are not entirely trusting of Jake’s theory (our narrator reluctantly reveals her name on page 36 when she goes to the local police station to report the killings). Partly because she doesn’t really seem to believe it either and also because she’s obviously fearful of something herself:

Stupid to have become so comfortable. The fridge hummed back in agreement. Stupid to think it wouldn’t all fall to shit. That feeling I’d had when I first saw the cottage, squat and white like a chalk pebble at the black foot of the downs, the safety of having no one nearby to peer in at me – that felt like an idiot’s lifetime ago. I felt at the side of the fridge for the axe handle.

Jake’s story prior to her arrival on the island is told to us in alternating chapters and is set in her native Australia. However, it is told backwards, a device that can leave you confused for a page or so while you position the tale being told within the existing narrative. What’s clever about this though is the way that it forces you into believing one particular person is behind her flight and possibly the death of the sheep, only for the narrative to move on and for you to realise you’ve been misled.

The structure of the narrative allows Wyld to keep the tension high throughout. This is a brutal and sometimes scary story. However, it is not without moments of tenderness and also humour to break the tension. Early in the novel, Jake’s returning to the house when Dog pricks his ears. As they enter the cottage, Dog shoots upstairs while Jake arms herself. The intruder turns out to be a racing pigeon with a broken wing. Jake telephones the owner:

The man sighed. ‘Pop her in a shoebox, keep her warm and watered. If she makes it through the night she’ll tell you when she’s well enough to fly home.’

He hung up.

‘Dickhead,’ I said to the pigeon. Any shoes I bought came in a plastic bag. I took another look at the bird, saw that its bottom eyelid had closed and its head was slack on its neck, and that talking to the man on the phone, I’d squeezed it too hard and now it was dead.

Jake takes the pigeon down to the shore to give it a burial at sea:

…she went further and further out and then sank, like the sea had swallowed her. I hummed the song from Titanic.

Recently, I’ve come to the conclusion that a very good book is one you want to read again; one that you know hasn’t yielded everything it’s got on first reading. As soon as I’d finished All the Birds, Singing, I wanted to start reading again. I wanted to start reading again to put the story together in chronological order, to spot all the clues that Wyld gives us as to what is killing Jake’s sheep, and to revel in such a well written story.

All the Birds, Singing is a great book. I can see why its supporters were very vocal about its lack of inclusion on last year’s Booker Prize longlist.

 

 

Thanks to Evie Wyld for the review copy in return for a fair review. 

The Innocents – Francesca Segal

Adam Newman and his fiancé Rachel Gilbert are part of ‘Jewish north-west London’ and a community of

…people with whom [Adam’s] life had intersected at an earlier stage and who now resurfaced often enough for him to know a little of their lives, though he did nothing to seek out either the information or the subjects of it. Such was the way in Jewish north-west London – no one ever disappeared.

Rachel’s cousin, Ellie Schneider, never disappeared, she merely moved to New York City, modeled, made a porn film, got kicked out of Columbia and had an affair with a high-profile married man. And now she’s back and everyone in Jewish north-west London is talking about her.

Ellie seems not to care. When she first appears, at Kol Nidre, she’s

…wearing a tuxedo jacket with nothing beneath it and black trousers – trousers! – that clung and shimmered as if she’d been dipped in crude oil.

While her second public appearance, at the Sabahs’ open house, has her arriving late,

…her tight jeans and brown leather jacket, aged and cracking at the elbows, [making] her even more incongruous amid this sea of sequins and velvet than her usual overexposure would have done.

Naturally, she has everyone’s attention, particularly that of Adam.

During their first few meetings, she intrigues and irritates him in equal measure but after an evening at her flat when Ellie asks him ‘What do I have to do to become a nice Jewish girl?’ and confesses to being lonely, Adam finds himself sending his usual evening email love song to Rachel and another specially selected one to Ellie.

The novel then begins to build towards what seems to be inevitable and it’s here that Segal really shows her skill as a writer: what could have been clichéd becomes taut and suspenseful. Just at a moment where you think Adam and Ellie are about to fall, Segal pulls them back. The dance they perform around each other is delicious and something to savour.

Segal’s also very good at explaining – without being patronising or over-bearing – the rituals of the Jewish community, helping us to understand, without feeling alienated. She’s also chosen her subject matter well – family, marriage, affairs, work are things we can all relate to, regardless of culture.

The Innocents has already won the Jewish Book Award and the Costa First Novel prize. Tomorrow, Segal finds out whether she’s won the Costa Book of the Year. She would be a worthy winner.

Maggot Moon – Sally Gardner

Standish Treadwell.
Can’t read, can’t write.
Standish Treadwell isn’t bright.

So sing the school bullies as they give Standish yet another beating. The beatings that make him believe school is invented:

…just so the bullies, with brains the size of dried-up dog turds, could beat the shit out of kids like me.

Standish Treadwell is the protagonist and hero of Maggot Moon. His old teacher, Miss Connolly and his best friend, Hector recognise him as ‘an original’:

There are train-track thinkers, then there’s you, Standish, a breeze in the park of imagination.

and even the leather-coat man who comes from the Motherland tells Standish:

I don’t think for one moment you are as stupid as you would like us to believe.

He’s not. Standish knows that:

If you are clever, know more than you should, you stand out like a green sky above a blue field, and, as we all know, the President of the Motherland believes that artists who do those sorts of paintings should be sterilised.

It is 1956 but not the 1956 we know for this is the dystopia that could’ve existed had Germany won World War II. This is never openly stated but there are enough clues – the Motherland, the salute, the children with ‘impurities’ who are ‘sent away’.

Standish lives with his granddad because his own parents have been taken by the Greenflies. He makes friends with Hector when Hector and his family are sent to live in Zone Seven and end up in Standish’s family’s old house. They’ve been banished from Zone One after Hector’s father has refused to do something for the government, something he keeps secret to protect Standish and his grandfather. But when Hector and Standish’s red football goes over the back wall, they all end up involved in something they shouldn’t.

This is a tightly plotted novel with a brilliant narrator. It has a beautiful friendship at the heart of it and a dyslexic boy who proves that finding reading and writing difficult doesn’t mean you’re stupid or afraid to stand up for what you believe in. It’s also beautifully written – I kept stopping to quote lines to my partner.

Maggot Moon deserves every ounce of praise that’s been heaped upon it. It’s perfect for teenagers (and slightly younger if you don’t mind the swearing and occasional violence) and adults alike. A superb book.

Thanks to readingzone.com and Hot Key Press for the review copy.