Jake Whyte is a sheep farmer on a remote unnamed British island. All The Birds, Singing, this year’s Miles Franklin award winner, opens with the discovery of a dead sheep. Something, or someone, is picking them off one by one and she doesn’t think its a fox. Jake is a solitary character, avoiding everyone who lives in the local town, apart from Don, a farmer who sold her the property. Lloyd, a mysterious stranger comes to her farm and gradually Jake allows him to break down her self-imposed isolation.
But Jake has a backstory, far away in Australia, where she worked as a shearer, which is revealed in flashbacks told out of order. Jake is part of a shearing gang moving from one place to another and it becomes apparent that she’s on the run from someone. Its also obvious early in the story that she’s suffered a serious trauma and has left her family behind to work as a prostitute. The flashbacks slowly piece together her past, leaving the reader guessing as to what is the event that has inflicted so much suffering on her. It’s only revealed in the climax, which is heart-wrenching.
This is a very cleverly constructed narrative that left me guessing all the way as to what had happened to Jake. The writing itself is plain but beautifully evokes both the rainy English countryside and the dry harshness of the Australian outback. Wyld also has a great ear for the Australian vernacular and the story reads as though she actually did work as a shearer, so accurate are her descriptions of how that incredibly skilled job works.
But the tight control over the characters and story left me feeling a bit dissatisfied. The present story in England didn’t generate the same sense of suspense as the backstory, which made me eager to read the latter and skip quickly over the former. I would also have liked to know more of the events and characters that relate to the climax and there were lots of ragged ends left at the end.
That brings me to a thorny problem I’ve been thinking about this week, which is what constitutes literary fiction? I need to decide to which genre my own book belongs when I’m ready to pitch it to agents and publishers. Those who’ve read it are divided as to whether its literary or genre fiction. If its genre, it probably sits in historical or women’s fiction, or possibly young adult. I can’t decide because I never set out to write a book that belonged to a particular category, I just wrote it.
But the definition of literary fiction is a topic that no-one seems to agree on. This blog post makes a good attempt to try. Based on Jennifer’s analysis, genre fiction is driven by plot and narrative, is formulaic and has happy endings. Literary fiction, on the other hand, is driven by characters and themes, has non-formulaic, difficult structure and may have an unhappy or unclear ending. But she notes that the distinction is becoming less clear and many books are now considered ‘cross-over’ stories.
All The Birds, Singing certainly fits most of those literary criteria and it won the Miles Franklin award this year so that goes without saying. But the prose style is very easy to read, although it is fresh. So much genre fiction has hackneyed, cliched prose but there’s also plenty of examples that aren’t. Likewise, so many literary books and authors break those moulds. I am thinking of Ian McEwan, who always writes intriguing and compelling plots, and Booker prize winner Eleanor Caton, who has spoken at length about her distain for how literary fiction distances itself from genre fiction, particularly with regard to plot (read previous post here).
Despite the mismatch in narrative tension between the two timeframes, All The Birds, Singing is a compelling read and I felt completely immersed in Jake Wyte’s life as both an English sheep farmer and her tragic Australian backstory.