SHE SETS HER CREATIONS’ MENTAL MONSTERS LOOSE
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.