Red dust and original sins
All the Birds, Singing
By Evie Wyld Vintage, 228pp, $32.95
THE word rape comes from the Latin rapere, meaning to seize or snatch. But the term can also refer to the tearing of prey. Evie Wyld’s second novel exploits this etymological ambiguity for fictional ends. Her account of a young woman’s descent into prostitution and sexual slavery in Australia’s Top End is devastating in plot outline, John Fowles’s The Collector with red dust. Yet the psychological pressures that attend the girl’s experience also leak into the outer narrative, giving the novel’s chief settings — the Pilbara and an unnamed island off Britain’s coast — an uncanny air. The author sets her creations’ mental monsters loose having given them real teeth and claws.
Wyld is ideally equipped to divide the novel’s geography. She spent part of her childhood in Australia and evidently has eidetic recall for the texture of place and time. Everyone smokes Holidays and watches antipodean soap operas on TV. Her ear for Australian slang of recent decades remains keen too, and she uses its coarse humour to float her characters above deeper currents of feeling and desire. The author, however, is based in Britain these days; she was included in Granta magazine’s recent updated list of Britain’s best young novelists. If those sections dealing with Britain are more vaguely described, we can presume that this muddy, windswept landscape is a photo-negative of Australia’s harsh clarities. The island is a metaphysical as much as a physical place: isolation mapped and charted.
Jake Whyte is the character who links these milieus. We first meet her on the small property she has purchased from a local farmer, an Aussie far from home. She keeps a mob of sheep, which she watches over with care and panicky attentiveness that borders on the obsessive. For companionship she has a dog whose name — Dog — indicates an unwillingness to strengthen any emotional attachment beyond a bare minimum.
Wearing a self-cut fringe and habitually clothed in grimy dungarees, Jake has so successfully erased her gender that the reader is driven to confused re-reading. Why is our attention returned again and again to the masculine broadness of her shoulders? And
Evie Wyld explores the dark side of Australian masculinity