Amy Liptrot introduces the new novel by Evie Wyld
“What brought you to the island?” protagonist Jake is asked a third of the way into Evie Wyld’s compelling, perfectly realised novel. “Sheep” she replies (for Jake is a woman, a 'strong lady'). But of course the reasons that took her from the Australian outback to living alone, with a dog and 50 sheep on an unnamed British island, are much more complicated.
The chapters in this novel alternate between the very different sensory environments of the island (with the "smell of wet wool and rain dampened sheep shit") and Australia ("dust-dry smell of carpet sheep in their wide red spaces"). The neat structure has the present moving forwards while the past moves backwards, each chapter giving more of Jake’s story, like a deft shearer revealing a sheep’s skin from beneath its wool.
The reader is drawn in each direction, to find the answer to two central questions: what is killing Jake’s sheep on the island, and why does she have terrible scars on her back? The chapters become shorter and more urgent as the answers are revealed: we move back through Jake’s time as the only female sheep shearer on a ranch, to working as a prostitute, to running away from the old man who kept her captive, and finally to the unexpected events that set off her series of escapes. It’s a book about escaping and a book about about self defence. Jake learns the skills she hopes will make her self-sufficient: driving, shearing, self-possession. “I am capable” she tells herself.
A key episode comes when she hits a kangaroo in her truck: “I laugh out loud at how wonderful life is that it takes a hell of a knock like that and it’s just fine, and I find the steadiness in myself and get out of the car to check the damage”. The animal has not escaped as unhurt as it at first looks: “I don’t let my thoughts touch the sides as I take the crowbar out of the toolbox”. The language here is direct and the action unavoidably, swiftly affecting. The threat of violence seethes under everything. “There was not supposed to be much you could so with a gun in England you couldn’t do with a rock, but I was less sure of that now.”
Jake has scars, bad dreams that make her wail in the night and torrid hallucinations. Something – or someone – unknown is killing the sheep, but Jake is a survivor of trauma and it is hard to know how much is paranoia. Reading the book from an islander’s perspective, I am curious to know where it is set. The presence of foxes narrows it down to just four UK islands: Anglesey, Harris, the Isle of Wight or Skye. A mention of the island being south and having a prison point to it being the Isle of Wight, but really it doesn’t matter. In the acknowledgements, Wyld thanks sheep farmers in the land-locked county of Hereford for helping her with research and, indeed, the sea does not have much of a presence in the book. Instead, the island is more of a psychological device, providing a contained world.
While the Australia chapters are a story of brutalisation, the island ones are more an opening-up, within geographical constraints. Jake might have come to the island to isolate herself – as many people do – but, as many people also do – she finds oddballs like herself, who offer, if not kindness, then at least support in their own strange ways. She needs these people to confirm her fears, to offer another layer of defence. The inverted structure of All the Birds, Singing meant that when I finished it I began reading again from the beginning, understanding more the second time, more alert to the cry in the night and the smell of smoke in the air. [pullquote]
Amy Liptrot is a journalist from Orkney who grew up on a sheep farm. She spent the winter living on the island of Papa Westray and is working on her first book. More of Amy's writing can be found on her website: amyliptrot.tumblr.com