It was a shock. I was genuinely shocked that it won. All the knowledgeable money was on Richard Flanagan. Had I been a betting man my hard earned would have been too. Leaving aside the predominately awe-struck reviews for what fellow nominee Winton described as a ‘masterpiece’, there were the sales. Never far, for months and months, from the top of the best-seller lists, ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ is truly a remarkable book. I defy anyone to get through it without weeping at some stage – I certainly did so more than once. Not so it seems the flinty hearted on the judging panel. At the time of its gong Wyld’s winning title had sold a paltry 1200 – now of course the author will feel as if she’s won the lottery. Of course sales should never be the sole criteria – but public response must count for something. Maybe the ‘wise’ trio adjudicating were intent on giving a newbie a legs up, or were they still wearing the scars of sexism directed at another judging panel for the Miles Franklin a few years back. Perhaps they feel the last world war has been done to death (sorry about the pun) – although the story was surely about so much more. Admittedly Flanagan doesn’t need the exposure, nor reassuring that what he has produced is the real deal – but I suspect he must be wondering, as many are, how could they turn from his opus to this relatively unknown and palpably inferior effort. I cannot claim to have read all other tomes on the short-list, but as soon as I recovered from feeling miffed on Flanagan’s behalf, I got stuck into Wyld’s book, just in case it I had it all wrong. I hadn’t.
Now that I have completed it, I will admit ‘All the Birds, Singing’ is a fine novel. I have no qualms now about the praise the judging panel heaped on it :-
Commenting on behalf of the judging panel, State Library of New South Wales Mitchell Librarian, Richard Neville, described Ms Wyld’s writing as “spare, yet pitch perfect”, with her novel being both “visceral and powerfully measured in tone. ‘All the Birds, Singing’ draws the reader into its rhythm and mystery, through wonderfully and beautifully crafted prose, whose deceptive sparseness combines powerfully with an ingenious structure to create a compelling narrative of alienation, decline and finally, perhaps, some form of redemption,” Mr Neville said. “Flight from violence and abuse run through the core of the novel, yet never defeat its central character. ‘All the Birds, Singing’, an unusual but compelling novel, explores its themes with an unnervingly consistent clarity and confidence.”
After reading the tome, it is hard to disagree with those sentiments, but in my view it possesses none of the power of the favourite for the gong. I know Flanagan’s effort will become an Australian classic. Wyld’s sophomore book will have a brief honeymoon and then be largely forgotten.
‘All the Birds, Singing’ had been sitting on my ‘to read’ shelf well before it was put forward for the major award. It was there due to the enjoyment I received from Ms Wyld’s first published offering, ‘After the Fire, A Still Small Voice’. In truth, although much the same theme was evident in both, her second was no disappointment, in itself, either. It was also based around fleeing one’s past/demons. In the first it was into the Australian bush/outback. In the follow-up it was to the fringes of our country’s central void – and then on to as far away as is possible – an island off the UK’s northern coast. Neither broke new ground on this well travelled path, but both were well wrought and worthy of their critical acclaim. The hero of the second, Jake, is a fractured soul plying her trade as a hooker at a truck stop in a Pilbara mining town. She escapes this to former customer Otto’s ‘care’ on his fly-blown property out on the desert rim. Here she picks up some handy hints on how to shear sheep. This puts her in good stead when she joins a motley crew working the sheds during the season – and finds a new partner to share her lodgings. But her past is never far away, so she decides to take her savings and chances to the other side of the world. The sun-blasted landscapes of this country are exchanged for an Arctic-wind chaffed isle in another hemisphere. By now she had graduated well and truly from using her orifices to raise a buck to becoming a fully fledged sheep farmer – but of course there are more roadblocks to come for our feisty Aussie lass. Something is taking her animals – something that is sinisterly bigger than the known local wildlife and she has had hints of it in the periphery of her vision. Are these flashbacks, or is she going cabin-crazy? She then develops a relationship of sorts with another fleer from reality as she attempts to move towards a form of atonement.
Yes, there is much to admire about Wyld’s work. She certainly knows her canines as dogs feature as major characters. Her narrative dips and weaves through the years forming a seamless narrative. For a second timer, she undoubtedly has a strong future in the industry as a result of the Miles Franklin misjudgement. But she is simply no Richard Flanagan.
Evie Wyld’s website = http://www.eviewyld.com/