Miles Franklin Literary Award Winner 2014
Elanora book club discussed this book at this months meeting and there were very wide and differing opinions. Almost as wide and varied as the bookcovers!
Some people liked it, some people were undecided and some people hated it! So all in all it made a good book for a group discussion.
General opinion was that it is an unsettling, darkly disturbing and disquieting novel.
All the birds singing tells the story of a young woman called Jake Whyte living alone on a British island tending to her sheep. You know something bad has happened to Jake and that is what the tale is about. Jake is an outsider and lives a solitary life. You discover she has had a hard life in Australia before she moves to the island in Britain. She has been a shearer, a prostitute, a runaway teen and an imprisoned lover. Through all this she does not see herself as a victim but as a survivor. She certainly never feels sorry for herself.
The author has taken a different approach in the telling of the tale. It is told in two parts. The uneven chapters are set in the present and move forward and the even chapters are set in the past and move backwards. This actually takes a while to get used to and most readers at the book club did find it a little confusing. In fact after I finished reading the novel I went back and just read the even chapters and I found I picked quite a bit of information that I had previously missed, which did make quite a lot of things clearer. However, by the end of the book you are still left with a lot of unanswered questions, for example, just how did she get to buy a sheep farm in England! Perhaps this is part of the skill of the writer you are only told the bits you need to know, not every question receives an answer.
She tells one of her lovers, Greg, at one stage in the book ” I tell him the in between bits of my life, the bits that are available. Learning to shear, my friend Kate and further back, the sharks, the bush” . This I think sums it up beautifully, as this is exactly what the author tells her readers, only the bits that are relevant.
Another aspect that I felt was quite disarming was in some parts you are never quite sure if all her terrors are real or imagined. Though I guess this does add to the intrigue, unease, suspense.
It’s not until the last chapters that you discover the story to Jake’s scars on her back and so to why she has chosen to live the life she has. Some people in the book club felt no empathy for Jake and found her hard to like as a character but others felt she was very skilfully drawn and you could understand why she is so tough. At one stage when she is running away from Otto, a lady in a shop gives her a chocolate Freddie the Frog. She is hungry but doesn’t eat it….”I save the Freddie the Frog until it melts in the glove compartment. He represents something I’m not sure I understand“. Poor Jake not to know or understand kindness.
In the end I found the book quite compelling and it was one of those books that has stayed with me after I finished reading it. I liked the end I thought it offered up some kind of hope for Jake.