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book review

‘All the Birds, Singing’ by Evie Wyld

Hadley Hooper for the boston globe

Evie Wyld, one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists, isn’t one to start a book delicately.

From the very first sentence of her brilliantly unsettling new novel — “another sheep, mangled and bled out, her innards not yet crusting and the vapours rising from her like a steamed pudding” — you’re thrust into a world of violence, dread, and psychological mystery.

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Narrated by Jake Whyte, a young sheep farmer living in exile on an isolated and unwelcoming British isle, “All The Birds, Singing’’ explores both Jake’s murky past in the Australia bush and her uncertain future.

Secretive and stubborn, with only a mutt named Dog for company, her back enigmatically scarred, Jake is on the run, both from a man named Otto who says she stole all his money and his car and ran off, and from herself. What happened to Jake and why is she so haunted?

Bit by bit, Wylde parcels out a few unsavory details. Jake, who ran away at 15, is rescued by Otto, an older man who teaches her how to shear sheep, locks her up in a room, and uses her for sex.

She manages to escape his prison, avoiding his hostile and creepily violent dog. But being on the run doesn’t mean safety.

Neither does working on a sheep farm. She finds two of her sheep gutted and mangled. She keeps seeing something big and beastly in the shadows, which may or may not be human, or even animal.

It’s unclear what the killer wants and why. Is it Otto who tracked her down and wants her back? Is it the troubled son of her house’s previous owner? Or maybe it’s one of the pack of nasty kids roaming around who have too much time on their hands?

And then one day, she sees a figure, a man named Lloyd, who has secrets of his own, and she lets him stay in her house, slowly forming an odd bond with him.

To make sense of Jake’s present, Wyld folds back into her past, using a double narrative. The mystery of Jake, how she becomes a recluse, is told in alternate chapters, starting from her latest moments to move backwards in time to the beginning of her trauma and the one stunning decision she makes that violently changes who Jake is and explains why she’s so damaged.

But while these past sections are rich and satisfying, the present day narrative about Jake is less successful, and most of the mysteries around her current life remain tantalizing. Who is killing her sheep? We never find out for certain. What is that monstrous shadowy shape? Is it real, or as Jake herself wonders at time, is she going crazy? There’s no definitive answer, all giving the novel a lopsided balance that keeps us off kilter.

Where Wyld truly shines is in the writing, flooding every page with menace. Even the beauty of the natural world becomes sinister, as guinea pigs are fed to hungry snakes; spiders spew from cracks in the wall; and when Jake hits a kangaroo with her car, she puts it out of its misery with a crowbar. There’s the reek of blood and dead animals, the mud, the rain, the muck, and none of it remotely welcoming.

This is also a world, too, that’s hostile to women. Jake’s the only female working with a crew of men. She has no friends, nor does she take up any offers to go to the pub to make some, to let herself be known. When she spots a strange man by her property, she goes to the cops, but instead of help, she’s dismissed as a woman shaken by her own loneliness.

Wyld’s language is as rattling as it is precise. A man’s unwelcome breath is “hot fudge on the side of my face.” The blistering heat heat makes Jake’s arms feel “like they’re full of warm oil.”

Daring and fierce, this is a book that makes you feel the need to look over your shoulder in case something dark and hulking might be gaining on you. In Jake’s case, it just might be her past.

Caroline Leavitt’s latest book is “Is This Tomorrow.”
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