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. 

Life After Life – Kate Atkinson

An icy rush of air, a freezing slipstream on the newly exposed skin. She is, with no warning, outside the inside and the familiar wet, tropical world has suddenly evaporated. Exposed to the elements. A prawn peeled, a nut shelled

11th February 1910, Ursula Todd is born, strangled by the umbilical cord. No doctor is present at the house due to the snow that has fallen and closed the road.

11th February 1910, Ursula Todd is born and lives. The doctor arriving just in time, before snow closed the roads, and cutting the umbilical cord wrapped around Ursula’s neck that would surely have killed her.

Kate Atkinson’s eighth novel Life After Life tells the story of Ursula Todd, a girl, and subsequently a woman, destined to live her life over and over, sometimes in a slightly different way, other times featuring more drastic changes. It is about how one moment can change a lifetime.

‘Why is everything an “adventure” with you?’ Sylvie asked irritably to Izzie.
‘Because life is an adventure, of course.’
‘I would say it was more of an endurance race,’ Sylvie said. ‘Or an obstacle course.’

Ursula’s lives are populated by her family – judgmental mother Sylvie; stalwart father Hugh; flighty and extravagant aunt Izzie; superior and insufferable older brother Maurice; big sister Pamela, and younger brothers Teddy and Jimmy – and a wide cast of friends, lovers (of several family members) and co-workers.

It is credit to Atkinson’s incredibly vivid writing that you become attached to these people time and again and that the structure, rather than create difficulties or disjointedness in the reader’s understanding, brings us to a deeper knowledge of Ursula and her motives.

I wondered whether the repetitive structure, in particular, Ursula’s many rebirths on the same day, would become tedious. But Atkinson – mindful of her audience – tells the events of the day from a slightly different point in time or indeed, a different point of view each time. In later events that are revisited and played differently, cross points are created so we build up a full picture of what will always be and what might have been if X had happened or Y hadn’t.

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Life After Life is a very difficult book to talk about without spoiling anything (as I’ve seen several reviews and articles do recently, and not just for this book) as there are events that happen and points where the writing is so vivid that I want to talk about them. However, as a reader, I hate a good book being spoilt so I won’t. Instead, I’ll simply point out that my urge to discuss this book points to it being very very good indeed. A cert for the Women’s Fiction Prize shortlist or I’ll eat my (signed) hardback copy.

Instructions for a Heatwave – Maggie O’Farrell

I should probably preface this post by mentioning that I love Maggie O’Farrell’s writing – not unequivocally – I thought The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox had some serious flaws but still that didn’t invalidate the quality of the writing. Like too many of the books I own, her debut After You’d Gone sat on my shelf for a long time before I read it. In fact, I think it had been joined by My Lover’s Lover and The Distance Between Us before a colleague mentioned that After You’d Gone was one of her favourite books and I should read it. I did. And then I read the other two in close succession. O’Farrell is now one of the few writers with a substantial output whose entire body of work I’ve read. And so, to her latest.

 

Instructions for a Heatwave is set during the heatwave of 1976 and concerns the Riordan family. Gretta and Robert live in Highbury where they have raised three children – Michael Francis, Monica and Aoife. Robert’s retired and spends his days pottering around the house unless Gretta organises outings for them.

As the novel opens, Robert tells Gretta, ‘I’ll just go round the corner and get the paper’. While he’s gone we’re given an insight into Robert and Gretta’s relationship:

Gretta sits herself down at the table. Robert has arranged everything she needs: a plate, a knife, a bowl with a spoon, a pat of butter, a jar of marmalade. It is in such small acts of kindness that people know they are loved. Which is, she reflects as she moves the sugar bowl to one side, surprisingly rare at their age. So many friends of hers feel overlooked or outgrown or unseen by their husbands, like furniture kept too long. But not her. Robert likes to know where she is at all times, he frets if she leaves the house without telling him, gets edgy if she slips away without him seeing and starts ringing the children to question them on her whereabouts.

It is all the more shocking therefore, when Robert fails to return.

Gretta calls her children for help. They rally round but they’ve all got issues of their own: Michael Francis doesn’t recognise his wife anymore. His children are left to play by themselves while she sits in the attic working on her Open University degree. Monica is struggling with her step-daughters, who don’t seem to like her, and a husband who is unsupportive of her attempts to bond with them. Aoife has escaped to New York after a major disagreement with Monica and is hiding the fact that she can’t read (she’s dyslexic) from her employer and her lover.

The family come together at Gretta’s house. The heat exacerbates the tension that already exists between them and as the search for their father continues, secrets spill out.

This is a skillfully written novel. O’Farrell’s prose has a rare quality, one that pulls you into the world that she’s created and envelops you in the drama. Rather than sympathising with a character, you feel like an onlooker in the same room or street. In Instructions for a Heatwave, you can feel the heat – both the literal heat of the sun and the metaphorical heat of simmering family tensions. This is her best novel yet.

And, you lucky people, I have two copies to give away – one paperback proof and one finished hardback. If you’d like one leave a comment below before midnight on Saturday 16th March and I’ll draw the winners at random the following day. I’m happy to post books internationally. Good luck!

Update: The Winners!

The random number generator says:

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Congratulations liveotherwise and liz mckay, emails have been sent to you both.

Thanks to everyone else who entered and sorry I didn’t have more copies.