A low, steady thrum of dread suffuses Evie Wyld’s second novel, “All the Birds, Singing.” It’s there right from the opening sentence: “Another sheep, mangled and bled out, her innards not yet crusting and the vapours rising from her like a steamed pudding.” The sheep belong to Jake Whyte, a surly woman living alone on a British island. Surrounded by animals — a dog called Dog and her sheep, killed mysteriously one by one — she finds as little comfort in the natural world as she does in human companionship.
Wyld uses language that is purely gorgeous, even — perhaps especially — when underscoring dread. In a robustly anti-Disney approach to nature, Wyld’s animals signal and sometimes magnify the sense of foreboding. A sheep’s final cry rattles Jake’s bones and “fades out into a gurgle.” A redback spider sits atop a shower head, raising one leg as if to ward off the water’s chill spray. When Jake rescues an injured pigeon, she squeezes it too hard, and its head goes slack. Even the plants are menacing. One evening, she closes the kitchen curtains and turns up the radio “to drown out the skittering noises of leaves moving up the stone path.”
The chapters alternate between Jake’s present life on the island and her previous life in Australia; the island story moves forward while the Australia story progresses backward. That complicated structure should be a distraction, but in Wyld’s hands, it is not. Writing with assurance and just enough embedded clues to help us understand what she is doing, Wyld ramps up the tension with this dual-time-flow structure. Near the book’s end, Jake is 15. Standing on dry leaves in her home town, surrounded by birds “loud and all singing at once,” she is overcome by her aching heart and ignites a chain of events that sets her on a transcontinental quest for escape.
Best of all is our dawning awareness that the central mystery isn’t the sheep-killing after all but the circumstances that brought Jake to the island and, years earlier, to a remote sheep station in Australia. As we work backward from adult to teenage Jake, the fearsome events that have scarred Jake, particularly in her relationships with men, become violently clear.
In the end, the hardness at Jake’s core and the stubborn isolation she has chosen are undercut by unexpected, softly radiant developments. There’s love as well as dread in this book, a surprising sort of love — the best kind of all.
King is a biological anthropologist at the College of William and Mary. Her book “How Animals Grieve” is published in paperback this month.
ALL THE BIRDS, SINGING
By Evie Wyld
Pantheon. 231 pp. $24.95