SHE SETS HER CRE­ATIONS’ MEN­TAL MON­STERS LOOSE

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Geordie Wil­liamson

why do men in the Aus­tralian scenes con­tin­u­ally re­fer to her as ‘‘ mate’’?

The an­swer is given in a se­ries of flash­backs, mem­o­ries that coil back­wards in time in a man­ner so bam­boo­zling we are of­ten forced into inference and wild sur­mise. The com­plex­ity of the time scheme em­ployed by Wyld means the novel reads like a re­verse who­dunit, though in this case we know Jake is both the per­pe­tra­tor and vic­tim of cer­tain crimes. It is the de­layed dis­clo­sure of th­ese orig­i­nal sins that keeps us hunt­ing through the text.

It turns out Jake has worked with sheep be­fore: in this in­stance, as a con­tract shearer, with a gang in out­back Western Aus­tralia. That she man­ages to carve a niche for her­self in this all-male world is a tes­ta­ment to her phys­i­cal strength and com­pe­tence as a roustabout and shearer. There she has a boyfriend, the kindly Greg, and a neme­sis named Clare, an older man who has dis­cov­ered some­thing of her past. No sooner do we reg­is­ter the dis­tress, even ter­ror, that Clare’s par­tial knowl­edge rep­re­sents for Jake than we are shunted fur­ther back in time. We never learn ex­actly how this brief pe­riod of al­most-hap­pi­ness ends. In­stead we be­come privy to the events that led Jake to the job.

Back in the present, Jake dis­cov­ers one of her sheep dead, per­haps slaugh­tered by cruel school­child­ren or some feral an­i­mal. Yet the sur­gi­cal sever­ity of the an­i­mal’s evis­cer­a­tion trou­bles Jake; she senses a ma­lign pres­ence, some crea­ture, stalk­ing her flock, and the aware­ness knocks her hard-won equi­lib­rium out of true. We soon un­der­stand she is suf­fer­ing from what na­ture writer Philip Hoare calls zooscopy, a men­tal delu­sion in which the af­fected mind sees imag­i­nary an­i­mals. This delu­sion, how­ever, has very real trig­gers: The shed door was a crack open and in­side the dark­ness cod­dled like black wa­ter. Dog dis­ap­peared into it and I cocked the gun and went for the switch. The light blinked on . . . and I watched in slices as in the cor­ner Dog at­tacked some­thing large, hack­ing and snarling. I was stuck for a mo­ment with my mouth open, then I trained my gun.

‘‘ Je­sus!’’ screamed a man’s voice.

This con­fu­sion of an­i­mal and man goes to the heart of All the Birds, Singing. The vi­o­lence of male sex­u­al­ity here shades into some­thing lit­er­ally bes­tial, and the im­pres­sive prose and el­e­gant chrono­log­i­cal re­cur­sions straight out of Vir­ginia Woolf serve to in­ten­sify the or­di­nary hor­ror of Jake’s ex­pe­ri­ences.

Though Wyld’s novel is not al­ways suc­cess­ful — it be­comes en­tan­gled in its own in­tri­ca­cies, and the ex­pla­na­tion of Jake’s ini­tial crime is un­con­vinc­ing, a dis­rup­tion of the am­bi­gu­ity that has pow­ered the book so far — you would have to re­turn to Ken­neth Cook’s Wake in Fright to find a work that so un­blink­ingly records the dark side of Aus­tralian mas­culin­ity.

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