Monday, 26 May 2014

The Baileys Longlist, Redux

 I've been so impressed by the quality of the novels on the Baileys longlist this year that, despite the fact that the shortlist has long been announced, I decided to go back and read the rest. In fact, I read The Flamethrowers more than a month ago now, and have been meaning to write about it for some time. I'm pleased that I didn't, however, for it juxtaposes well with Evie Wyld's All The Birds, Singing, which I have just finished. The novels are superficially similar; both are narrated in first person by young women making their way in the world on unconventional terms, engaging with experiences that are expected to be the domain of men: in The Flamethrowers, breaking speed records on motorcycles on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, and in All The Birds, Australian sheep-shearing. For me, however, the similarities ended here. Both books utilise a complex and ambitious structure, but while All The Birds pulls this off so elegantly that you scarcely notice what is happening, The Flamethrowers seems to lumber under the weight of its own vision. The novel opens with a fabulous set-piece, as Reno, our narrator, sets off to break a female land speed record on a motorcycle, and it periodically regains this narrative intensity as it continues. However, the narrative was too disjointed for me to fully engage with it. The bulk of the novel deals with Reno trying to make it as an artist in New York - a dream that is swiftly sidelined by her romantic involvement with Sandro Valera, heir to an Italian rubber fortune, and her fascination with his friend, Ronnie Fontaine. Reno's experiences are meandering and frustrating, and although there are some beautifully-observed scenes - I enjoyed Ronnie's utterly pointless monologues - I found it difficult to keep going. An interesting sideline deals with TP Valera, the founder of the Valera rubber business, and his first dabblings in Brazil early in the century; while the exploitation of the local workers is memorably written, it seems to be an interruption to the main narrative.

A key thematic thread is how Reno herself - and by implication, women in the context of the groups that she moves in - is overwritten or invisible. Radical men dream of a world where sex is reduced to a transaction, and women to sex. In her early days in New York, Reno works as a 'China girl' for film stock; posing for a frame that will only be seen by the lab technician who calibrates the film. She is present, important, but unseen. Reno's friend, Giddle, has decided to pursue success as an actress by inhabiting the role of the menial jobs she's forced to take on; she's not working as a waitress, she explains to Reno, she is inhabiting the role of someone who has to work as a waitress. In this way, she has moved beyond the need for success and is approaching true art. Reno herself does a Giddle throughout the novel, in subtler ways; she struggles to learn the codes of Sandro's circle, and when she goes with him to his family's villa in Italy, she is finally, and utterly, out of her depth. Her character is determined by those around her.


In contrast to The Flamethrowers, Evie Wyld's All The Birds, Singing, doesn't put a foot wrong. Seriously, this is one of the best novels I've read in the last few years. The novel switches between first-person chapters narrated in past tense and set in the present which move forward in time, and first-person chapters narrated in present tense and set in the past which move backwards in time. The common feature is the voice of our protagonist, Jake, a guarded, scared and self-reliant young woman. Wyld handles this complicated structure so effortlessly that the novel is as gripping as a thriller, skilfully using the chapters that move backwards to drop clues about the mystery that surrounds Jake's past and the network of scars on her back. Although the present-day plot also focuses on a mystery - some of Jake's flock of sheep keep turning up dead - we quickly realise that this is not the main focus of the story, and, in fact, is just the aftermath of everything that has happened before. Wyld, who has said she was influenced by horror tropes in the writing of this novel, is adept at building a lingering sense of dead. It helps that she's a fantastic writer, conveying huge amounts about her settings in a sparse page count. Virtually all the professional reviews of this novel have quoted its gruesome first line, which describes the dead body of a sheep. Wyld, however, is not interested in shallow grittiness, or in solely conveying how hard a life lived close to nature can be, and her descriptions of the tacky 'ombience' of the room that Jake used to share with her friend Kathy in Australia, or of the cheap processed food eaten by the sheep-herders, are as accurate and evocative as the bloody image of the sheep.

What really makes this novel, however, is Jake. Not 'Jake's voice', but Jake herself. I struggled with Wyld's first novel, After The Fire, A Small Still Voice (she's clearly leading the charge to insert commas into titles) partly because I felt distanced from the two main characters. In contrast, I felt that I 'got' Jake immediately, and Wyld's clever writing continually adds to the picture. As we move backwards through Jake's past, we learn so much about her - from her shifting feelings about her 'manlike', muscular arms to her penchant for fried calamari - and Wyld, partly through her use of such a clever structure, makes this process feel completely organic. Moving from present to past allows us to understand Jake better, as well. In an early scene in the present, Jake goes down to the sea with her dog, and hums 'the song from Titanic' to the waves as she lets the body of a dead pigeon float out to sea. The image of tough, unemotional Jake humming My Heart Will Go On is incongruous but intriguing, and I had expected it to be a throwaway detail that indicated a softer side to Jake's character. What Wyld does with that detail later in the novel both tells us so much about Jake and makes the original scene read very differently.

The time that Wyld spends in getting us to understand Jake is absolutely worth it, because this novel ends with a twist that would never work if we weren't absolutely connected to Jake by that point. As it is, this is one of the few novels I can think of that has a surprising ending that does not feel contrived, cheap or frustrating, but makes everything that came before even better. The solution to the sheep-killing mystery, on the other hand, remains technically unresolved; and yet, by that point, it no longer matters. We realise what we knew all along, that what Jake feared most was not the killing of her sheep but what she thought might be doing it; and, furthermore, what she herself has done that might make someone want to hurt her flock.

This novel would be my pick to win the Baileys this year… except, like The Luminaries, it has not been shortlisted. I find this truly incomprehensible, and it actually makes me quite angry that novels like  Burial Rites and The Undertaking were deemed to be better. I hope that All The Birds, Singing wins anything else that it is eligible for this year, because it definitely deserves to.

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