I’ve just finished this much lauded book, which deserves every accolade it has gathered. The back of the book casts the story as a mystery or a thriller “Jake Whyte is the sole resident of an old farmhouse on an unnamed island, a place of ceaseless rains and battering winds. It’s just her, her untamed companion, Dog, and a flock of sheep. Which is how she wanted it to be. But something is coming for the sheep – every few nights one is picked off and left in rags.” All of which is so, but I don’t think that is what this story is about, or at least it’s only a thread in the overall canvas. The first thing is that if you haven’t read the back of the jacket, it takes a wee while to cotton on that the central character is female. She is ferociously independent, antisocial, unsentimental. However, like her sheep she can be tremendously passive in the face of what threatens her, and what threatens her is present on every page and in every chapter. Animals and birds feature extensively, used to deepen, mirror or counterpoint Jake’s emotional state.The overarching sense of menace in this book is plain unsettling; and Jake is unsettled, despite having fled to a remote little island and rebuffing any approach or attempt at contact. We know very early that something very bad has happened to her, and before we are too far into the book, we understand two things – this is no ordinary thriller or whodunnit, and, it’s not at all certain whether the heavy foreboding is coming from something or someone outside Jake, in which case she is quite sensibly as skittery as a squirrel; or, whether it is inside Jake, in which case she might just be a little bit mad. Either way would explain why she wakes at night screaming, why she sees things that may or may not be there, why she keeps a hammer under her pillow and knows exactly where all the knives are – this is what kept me reading through all the darkness, I had to find out!
Jake doesn’t fit in, and never has. On her chosen island she is the foreigner, the weird woman farming alone. In Australia she was the weird she-bloke, working on remote sheep stations as ably as any man, in the Pilbara. At least that’s where we meet her, but the reverse timeline takes us back into her childhood home even further north, where she didn’t fit in either. She doesn’t even fit into her gender and there’s nothing feminine about her – – she has a boy’s name, she’s tall, strong, has a man’s arms, can throw a sheep no problem, and is referred to more than once as “a good bloke” by other men. Yet, she has also fled from Darwin to the the Pilbara, a hard, dry, remote place, where she falls into the oldest profession known to womankind.
We learn all this backwards – that’s the next thing about this novel; you aren’t in for the familiar forward-driving storyline of the thriller. Nope. This one has two timelines; the English storyline goes forwards and the Australian storyline goes backwards. Pay attention reader! The effect of this is two marry together the two intensifying threads of dread as the stories move towards their culminations. So, in the middle of the book, on the English island, it has stopped raining and we have Lloyd, the fellow who turns up and might be an axe-wielding sheep killer, being freaky:
“… the mist came down thicker than I’d seen before. It lapped at my feet when I opened the door, like my house was an island.”
… “Outside, Lloyd was shaking his finger at Dog. I started when he yelled, ‘No!’
Dog sat at Lloyd’s feet, with his ears back and one foot raised. He looked pissed off.
‘What’s going on?’
Lloyd ignored me and said Dog’s name in a creepy way. He was saying it the way people talk to a baby, with too many ups and downs so it sounded like ‘Doo-erg’, and looking Dog right in the eye at the same time. The hackles on Dog’s shoulders were up every time Lloyd said it, until Dog couldn’t take it any more and barked his warning bark, the high-pitched one that meant Get lost. As soon as he’d barked, Lloyd yelled ‘NO!’ in a deep voice and Dog cowered down, but his ears flicked about and he looked ready to murder.”
It turns out Lloyd is simply being a bit of a twit, thinking he needs to train Dog, but along with Jake, we wonder and feel anxious. Meanwhile, the very next chapter, back in Australia, ramps up the awfulness. Here, we know exactly who is killing the sheep, but we build up to knowing why, in reverse. (This is where I put the book down for four days); the younger Jake still a teenager at this point, has made a decision to go home with an older john called Otto. He never wants anything other than a ‘normal’ and he always buys her dinner and chats. When he offers her a place at his sheep farm she jumps at the chance. So, Jake leaves a note for her friend Karen, who she is sure will understand her taking the chance to get out, and climbs into Otto’s ute and drives off into the middle of nowhere. At first Otto is paternal and solicitous; Jake gets the tour and we know immediately this isn’t going anywhere good:
“Well, here we are then!’ says Otto brightly, and I can tell he’s excited to show me the place. An old dog, far older than the photograph he showed me, lumbers up to us.
“This must be Kelly?’ I say in a voice I reckon a dog would like. The dog looks at me blankly through clouded eyes. She’s got a grey muzzle and patches of dry skin show through on her flank. Poor old thing I think.” …
… “I get a small tour. ‘Like I said, we’re pretty much self sufficient here,’ says Otto, and I wonder if there’s a greener patch around the back for vegetables. There is a hairy looking paddock next to the house, but it’s dry and wild. ‘We slaughter our own sheep, and so really it’s just basics we shop for, twice a month or so. Bread, eggs , beer. I’ve tried a few chickens, but they don’t last long – Kelly doesn’t take to them too well.’ I wonder if ‘we’ means there’s someone else around the place or if he just means his dog. There is no green space around the back, there’s just the dunny and then, beyond that, the rest of everything. The watering hole has dried up because of the drought, he tells me …”
And so begins life with Otto. We learn via Otto’s attitude to sheep that the softness Jake thought she saw is very limited. She thought she was coming to a farm with a nice old bloke who told her his farm near Marble Bar “is a beaut spot, green in the winter, good watering hole to swim in in the summer … I imagine it, the fat woolly sheep, the rows of carrots and strawberries sprouting out of the ground. The fruit trees. I think up a tyre-swing and hang it over the watering hole, imagine ducks landing there on their way over.”
The reality is so far from such a childish dream, we can almost feel Jake’s spirit cracking:
“In the morning, because the land is so flat, I can see that the sheep, far off in the distance, are penned… As we get closer I can see how ill they look – patches of wool missing, ribs poking out. There’s a smell of shit and you can see the maggots eating their hind-quarters. Man-up, I tell myself. He’s an old bloke, he’s doing the best he can.”
The sheep are kept next to the slaughterhouse-come-shearing shed where the floor under the meat hook is black with dried blood and the place smells of vomit and bleach. “… ‘this way, they don’t know if they’re getting a hair cut or if they’re getting they’re throats cut, so really, it’s calming.’ I try to look like I agree with him.”
It takes Jake a long time to understand her situation, but we already know because we get the bad bits first and then, in the backwards unravelling of how things came to be this way, we understand Jake’s naivete and why she doesn’t see what’s coming – like the sheep. To Jake, Otto seems to be a good guy – he teaches her to shear, and gives her a driving lesson, promises her her own truck. But her increasing competence unsettles him and he becomes controlling. Like the sheep, she doesn’t use her strength or act when she could, and by the time she realises Otto isn’t just a “kind, lonely old man” she is trapped. Otto doesn’t actually beat her – it’s far more sinister and far more mundane; she can’t go anywhere. She makes an escape attempt but fails. This part of the story is a brilliant encapsulation of the slow, insidious creep of violence and abuse.
“In the morning, he greets me with a grim look in his eye.
‘Low on meat,’ is all he says and takes me by the wrist to the truck where Kelly is already waiting, panting with excitement. We drive out to the sheep and from the back of the truck he brings a heavy black canvas bag. I think about the shoe under the house. The earring in the woolshed. The things Kelly finds to eat in the tall grass.
Otto grips a ewe with a dreadful kind of strength I haven’t seen before – like he’s been keeping his muscles in hibernation until this point. It’s different from the strength he uses when he is shearing – it’s cruel, like he wants her to know what’s coming. He swings her up the ramp in front of him, and she gives out a terrible sound, and I stand there outside the woolshed, mute.” … “Get in here girl, I want you to see how it’s done,’ shouts Otto, and I pretend I can’t hear him, because I can’t move. I see him shake his head and the sheep’s cries rattle my bones. He takes a wide bladed knife from his bag and slices once across the white throat of the sheep and she is still alive and trying to bleat.”
It’s horrifying, foreboding and so well written I was as terrified as Jake and wanted to scream right along with her. The whole book is like this – like Jake, we don’t know if there is a bad person killing her sheep, a monster, or nothing at all – but we know there are bad men and we know bad things happen and they happen to us. Well, to Jake.
As the English story has things improving for Jake, the Australian story takes us back to the beginning – to what made her flee at fifteen, leaving behind her family, leaving behind everything. She phones from England, but when she does, she doesn’t speak. She just wants to hear their voices. She may be on the other side of the world, she may have her own place, she may be as tough as old boots – but she can’t leave behind who she is or what has happened.
As I read my way to the source of the shadow I wondered how Wyld could make it work; what could possibly be bad enough to have set in motion such a terrible trajectory? She pulls it off seamlessly – the ‘inciting’ incident, told nearly at the end of the book, makes sense of the whole thing, including the mysterious scars on Jakes back, and is entirely believable.It’s all so very ordinary, and all so very terrible, it left me pondering deeply the vagaries of fate and circumstance. Had Jake been prettier/shorter/girlier/more loved/less frightened what may or may not have happened?
The story stops in England – we are, in a sense, brought up to speed, to where life is at now, and left there. Jake and Lloyd stand together, two sad and battered souls – and that’s where it ends – in the middle. Except for that mysterious little epilogue, which seems to me to be saying that Jake is who she always was, no matter what has happened to her.
So did I like it? It’s very powerful, disturbing, thought provoking. The writing is absolutely fantastic; Wyld has got the pitch of Jake exactly right all the way through, from being a dewy-eyed teenager to a traumatised loner. She gets the pitch of all the minor characters right too, and leavens the whole dark thing with just enough humour and light to make it bearable. So, I reckon thats a yes, I liked it.