Tag Archives: Granta Best of British Young Novelists

All The Birds, Singing – Evie Wyld

I think it would be fair to say that Evie Wyld’s second novel, ‘All The Birds, Singing’, is one of the books that I have been most excited about reading this year. Back in December 2009, way back before she was (rightly) included in the Granta Best Young British novelists, when I first read her debut ‘After The Fire, A Still Small Voice’ I said “I thought this was a marvelous piece of work, an incredibly impressive debut, I think Wyld is definitely an author to watch out for in the future.” Having read ‘All The Birds, Singing’ and spending a few days thinking about it, and possibly hugging it, I initially thought it was bloody good now after more mulling I think it is a masterpiece… so it seems I was right with my prediction.

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Jonathan Cape, 2013, hardback, 240 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

“Another sheep, mangled and bled our, her innards not yet crusting and the vapours rising from her like a steamed pudding.” And so starts ‘All The Birds, Singing’ and so we find our heroine Jake as she takes in the sight before her, another of her sheep has been mutilated, killed by some ‘thing’. Yet what is the ‘thing’ that could be killing her flock one by one? Could it be the local kids who think she is some out of town witch? Could it be the neighbours’ crazy son? Could it be a monster, be it real, imagined or from Jake’s hidden past? Could it be linked to the sudden appearance of a new ‘incomer’ in the area?

As we read on we realise there is going to be a lot more to Jake, and indeed ‘All The Birds, Singing’ than meets the eye. Jake has clearly taken herself as far away from the world and place of her childhood, Australia, as it could be possible to be. She has hidden herself and even alienated herself from everyone around her. But why?  Now I am not, of course, going to tell you because Wyld herself plays a master stroke of leaving it until quite literally the very end of the book to find out. Thus adding a thrilling sense of you simply bursting to know both what the hell is out there in the fields and the forests in the now and just what the hell happened to send her there now. The unease of her present mixed with the unknown of her past becomes equally unnerving and intriguing as the book continues.

“I slammed the fridge and lent my head against it. Stupid to have become so comfortable. The fridge hummed back in agreement. Stupid to think it wouldn’t all fall to shit. That feeling I’d had when I first saw the cottage, squat and white like a chalk pebble at the black foot of the downs, the saafety of having no one nearby to peer in at me – that felt like an idiot’s lifetime ago. I felt at the side of the fridge for the axe handle.”

The way Evie weaves all of this together is just masterful. She doesn’t simply go for the route of alternating chapters from Jake’s present and her past, which would be too simple and has been done before. In the present Evie makes the story move forward with Jake from the latest sheep mauling, in the past though we go backwards making the reader have to work at making everything make sense. I had several ‘oh bloody hell that is why she is where she is’ moments with the past storyline before thinking ‘what there is more, that might not be the reason…’ Jakes mistrust of things it seems it catching. This style is a gamble and admittedly initially requires a leap of faith and chapter or two of acclimatizing to the structure, yet it is a gamble which pays of dividends by the end and if you see the end coming, and aren’t left completely jaw droppingly winded by it, then you are a blooming genius. I was honestly blown away.

It is also Jakes character, along with Wyld’s prose throughout, which makes the book a real stand out. She is barbed, brittle and rather damaged, yet in the same vein and with the way she loves her sheep she is also gentle and, with the way she jumps at the smallest thing, rather fearful and mistrusting. She is a dangerous dichotomy, which can be compelling but there is also the question of whether we should trust her, how reliable is she and just what on earth is being kept from us. It all creates a heady mix.

Throw in some corking set pieces like a sex scene which will have any reader with arachnophobia utterly hysterical in both senses, ghostly apparitions and spending nights alone on a farm with Jake that could be taken from a horror story and you have the reader undergo the full spectrum of emotions from horror to hilarity and back again. Like ‘All The Birds, Singing’ it is a book that stands alone, it isn’t like anything else. That said, some people are comparing Wyld to Du Maurier, I love both and can see the link yet I think Wyld is an author in her own right and doesn’t need to be likened to anyone if I am truthful.

I love books where the brooding sense of atmosphere and menace are palpable to the reader at all times, even in the lightest of moments. ‘All The Birds, Singing’ is such a book. It is one of those rare books you read (‘The Proof of Love’ by Catherine Hall and ‘Gillespie and I’ by Jane Harris spring to mind) that you feel the author actually wrote for you as it chimes with you so much. I asked Evie if she had, she hadn’t, rude. It is a book that I simply cannot recommend to you enough. You will be intrigued, horrified, laugh (when you possibly shouldn’t) and thrilled by an author whose prose is exceptional. I liked it even more than its predecessor. I want ‘All The Birds, Singing’ to win awards it isn’t even eligible for, most of all I want it to be read by YOU! Simple as that.

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Filed under Books of 2013, Evie Wyld, Jonathan Cape Publishers, Review

Ghana Must Go – Taiye Selasi

There has been a lot of buzz; I don’t want to say hype as that is always an off putting word, building around debut novelist Taiye Selasi in the last few months. She became one of the Waterstones 11 authors this year, there were murmured Man Booker predictions around blogs and forums and then this week she was announced as one of Granta’s Best of British Young Novelists. We also learn that her first published short story was written due to a deadline given to her by none other than Toni Morrison. Therefore, before you have even turned the first page, you might have been put off reading ‘Ghana Must Go’ because of the buzz or be expecting something that will completely blow you away. Well, I am about to add to the buzz because I was completely bowled away, and my expectations were high.

***** Viking Books, hardback, 2013, fiction, 318 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

They say that death is the end, in the case of ‘Ghana Must Go’ it is the beginning as in the very first paragraph we find Kweku Sai dying in his garden, he proceeds to die for the next chapter and indeed then for the first ninety-three pages, which is also the first section, of the book. This is a very clever writing device of Selasi’s because, again as we are told is the case, parts of Kweku’s life start to flash before his eyes and what we learn of is a man who tried hard to create a life for his family away from Ghana, in America, and who failed and fled abandoning them all when he did so.

That in itself could be enough story to fill a large novel, Selasi some manages to tell his story but also the ripples and repercussions that have come from that event several decades later and how his family must reunite and face the past and the memories it brings upon learning of their estranged father’s death.

 “Kweku dies barefoot on a Sunday before sunrise, his slippers by the doorway to the bedroom like dogs. At the moment he is on the threshold between sunroom and garden considering whether to go back and get them. He won’t. His second wife Ama is asleep in that bedroom, her lips parted loosely, her brow lightly furrowed, her cheek hotly seeking some cool patch of pillow, and he doesn’t want to wake her.
He couldn’t if he tried.”

‘Ghana Must Go’ is a book almost overflowing with themes and ideas, in fact sometimes you are amazed at how one story, and one family no matter how estranged, can create all the questions and thoughts that run through your head as you read. The main theme for me was acceptance; how we want to feel accepted by our family no matter how different from them we might be, how we seek acceptance in the place we choose to live and yet want the continued acceptance of where we are from, acceptance in society and most importantly acceptance of ourselves – oddly probably the hardest thing of all.

Home is another theme. It has been well documented that Selasi herself has moved around a lot; born in the UK where she returned to study some of the time, lived in Brookline in the USA, spent time in Switzerland and Paris, now lives in Rome and visits Ghana and Nigeria frequently. As I read ‘Ghana Must Go’ for the first time ever it occurred to me that home isn’t the building you place the label on but it is literally, cliché alert, where the heart is and that is because really you are your own home and the people you surround yourself with make different walls and a ceiling at different times. See, it really, really had me thinking and yet this is all done without bashing these ideas over your head or making the novel a huge epic tome, they just form as you follow the Sai families story.

It is also a book about consequences. Some thinks happen to us and we are obviously conscious of the consequences, in this case Kweku’s death in the present and his abandonment in the past and how it affected his wife Fola and their children both initially and as the years go on. Yet there are also the consequences of things that ripple through we might not think, for example with Fola and the Biafra war and how that changes her life or how our parents and grandparents might have acted or not acted upon things.

What I loved so much about ‘Ghana Must Go’ was that at its very heart it is the beautifully written and compelling tale of a fractured and dysfunctional family and the characters and relationships within it and also a book that really looks at, and gets us thinking, about so much more. It is a book filled with hidden depths and one that left me feeling a real mixture of emotions; heartache, shock, horror and also hope. At a mere 318 pages I think that is an incredible accomplishment and am very much in agreement with anyone else who thinks Taiye Selasi is one author to most definitely watch out for.

If you would like to find out more about the book I was lucky enough to spend an afternoon with Taiye last week and she is the latest author on You Wrote The Book here (I think it is my favourite interview so far, if I am allowed to have favourites?) so do have a listen. Who else has read ‘Ghana Must Go’ and if so what did you make of it? Is this book on your periphery at the moment? What are your thoughts on buzz and hype?

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Filed under Books of 2013, Review, Taiye Selasi, Viking Books