this is a book that mainly consists of these three themes: isolation, guilt, and how people will always try to escape the past.
jake whyte is a tough australian who has immigrated to britain to run a sheep farm. it’s, in some ways, jake’s way of cutting herself off from the rest of the world, and gradually we see that this is her main goal. more than anything, she wants to be left alone. her sole companion on the farm is her dog, who is also called dog. dog and jake make an excellent pair, and one of the main connecting threads throughout the novel is jake’s relationship not only with dog, but also with sheep, and kelly, and the birds that haunt her during the course of the novel. the only things we know about jake in the beginning are: jake is strong; jake is completely isolated; and jake is running from something. what is it exactly? slowly, through chapters interspersing the main present narrative, jake’s history is told backwards. i honestly can’t go into depth about any of her past life without spoiling the whole thing, though, so i’ll leave it at that for now.
my main issue with the novel was probably wyld’s prose. i see people praising wyld’s writing, but i didn’t think it was anything special. there are bits and pieces of really superb writing, but that’s all they are. the only place there seems to be usage of commas is in the title. i also felt that, particularly in the beginning, wyld struggles with capturing a scene; the writing is largely, “i did this, and then i did that, and then i thought this,” and for a while it grated on my nerves. luckily the prose improves as the book goes on, and it’s also engaging enough that the writing is at the back of your mind. wyld does excel, though, at painting a picture when it comes to the grimmer scenes. whenever she writes about the slaughter of sheep, or the maggot encrusted wool, or the filthy place that jake once resided in – she’s great. i was totally nauseated by the descriptions and the things that happened in this book, and in my opinion, that signals wlyd’s success.
oh, which reminds me: something is picking off jake’s sheep. jake’s gut reaction is that it’s the nasty tempered kids in town who enjoy harassing her, but everyone around her (like don, and later lloyd) are not so convinced. and jake knows something or someone is out there, watching her. she can feel it in the walls; she can sense the subtlest shifting in the air, her skin prickles, and she can tell that she is no longer alone. several times, something enters jake’s house. but “it” never touches jake. despite this, jake sleeps with a hammer under her bed, a box of knives later on, and she makes sure her rifle is never far off. we witness jake’s desperate need to make sure that she is safe, that she can fend for herself, and that she does not need the help of anyone but herself and dog. but when jake finds a stranger drunk and injured in her barn, her quite solitude is thrown off its course. this stranger is called lloyd, and really, he’s a joyful little character. he’s strange but kind, and with some tentativeness jake and lloyd begin to strike up a friendship. i think some people find lloyd to be underdeveloped, and i might agree with this if not for a few things: i think it serves a point. besides the funniness and strangeness of his personality, we have little inkling as to why lloyd is there, or what he’s doing, or where he comes from. and the point is, is that from lloyd’s view, it’s the same with jake. jake and lloyd don’t need to know the details of each other’s past lives, because the present is the only thing that matters now. they focus on the sheep and trying to find out why they’re being killed, but they don’t talk deeply about themselves. occasionally, lloyd will ask things like, “do you have any children?” and when jake says, “no,” he simply replies, “me neither.” they leave it at that. i think it’s a simple reflection not only of jake’s loneliness and the fact that there are people out there who are able to interact without having to know the sordid lives that others might have lived before you’ve met them. jake is one of those people.
it’s also built off of jake’s own regrets, guilt and desire (above all else) to escape from what she has done and what she’s experienced. we know full well that jake has no longing to tell lloyd about what she comes from, and i think she both extends that courtesy to lloyd, and also does not want to know about his past either way. so, therefore, the interactions we read between lloyd and jake, the fact that he sings to dog and dances when he’s alone, and that he despises jake’s hair, that’s all we need to know. as readers we yearn to know about him, about his history, but we don’t need to know. i think that’s a big part of the novel, in some ways, despite the fact that we (of course) learn about jake’s life.
i was desperate to know where jake had gotten those scars, and i was desperate to know what had driven her to abandon everything. this could be an extremely quick read (i read it very quickly regardless), but it’s so, so tough to read. i mean – it’s full of extremely grotesque details, and if you have a tendency to a weak stomach, it probably isn’t the best thing to read. truthfully, i have a proneness to a weak stomach and i’m highly emotional, but i got through it fine. it’s difficult to read the things that jake goes through, and the consistent animal death (and not in nice, quick ways) is hard to swallow. but i think the good majority of it is necessary. life on a sheep farm – or literally any kind of farm – is not easy, and it isn’t pretty, and it parallels nicely with jake’s own rough past; and with her self-imposed isolation, perhaps things are made tougher. similarly, this book is filled to the brim with misogyny and its results, and it’s made obvious that for someone like jake (tough, unfeminine, bristly, someone who cannot be touched) interactions with most men are pointless and mostly negative. still, she finds solace in lloyd’s company, and of course there is also greg. but most of the kindnesses that jake’s given come from women, like the owner of the café, or the young teenage marcie, or karen, or the woman who gives jake shelter after she…leaves a certain place. we see that, mostly, women stick together. it isn’t always true, of course, especially as we learn about jake’s past, but the element is there regardless. there’s also the quality of homophobia (the men and their threatened masculinity, what else?) both amongst the men jake works with at one point, and people in jake’s life before that.
i just want to note that i really enjoyed jake, and i think her relationships with dog and lloyd are expertly pulled off, and i felt i could sympathize with jake greatly. i also think her interactions with otto and everyone else show us such interesting qualities to her.
so, so far, sounds pretty good, huh? well. if i’m going to be perfectly honest in this review, the ending took the novel down a star for me.
i felt that, after everything, the story of jake’s past and why she had fled in the first place were weak. i mean, it isn’t just jake’s jealousy that spurs her starting of the fire, but it’s one of the main factors, and it simply felt unreal. after gaining some tiny bit of attention from denver, and then his telling to her that it’s just because of flora, she burns down everything? and the fact that she was high while she did it? it just felt…lackluster. i think the novel, for the most part, is a good representative of misogyny, but it felt misogynistic in itself for jake’s whole life to be crumbled because of denver and flora’s relationship, especially after flora had shown jake kindness. i’m not trying to say jake owed anything to flora, but it just felt…i understand that things like this do happen but it just felt so contrived. i guess i was anticipating something more dramatic. maybe that’s my fault. but it just left me in a state of disbelief. i really felt for jake, with her being bullied, and i think that that is what built her up to this point, but the cataclysmic event that shoves her over the edge felt absolutely out of line with the rest of the story. i’m gonna be perfectly honest: i feel like some of my empathy towards jake waned whenever i learned why she had set the fire, but only the teeniest bit, because she’s struggled so much and i can understand being young and thoughtless and then suddenly doing something you can’t take back. so i felt my empathy return whenever i realized that this book is so much about regret and denial and how running makes things worse sometimes, and how we are all just human and that our flaws and our mistakes sometimes mask who we are or seem to be bigger than us. that helps me to understand the ending and its symbolism a tad better.
i did like the connection with “all the birds, singing,” but regardless it didn’t click. i also would’ve liked a tad more of jake’s family and her life with them, because i kept expecting there to be more…dysfunction at home that might’ve helped me to understand the events. i see jake’s mom and dad drinking constantly, but jake, lloyd and everyone else drink continuously, too, so if it was supposed to have some implication, it didn’t fit. the entirety of the novel is a wonderful mystery/thriller until, lo and behold, we finally get the conclusion (kind of) to (some) of the mystery. i know i’m probably sounding really hateful, but altogether it isn’t bad! it’s just that the ending itself is frustrating. so if you’re going to read it, maybe don’t read it for the mystery, but for the succinct observations, interactions, and the grittiness (if you like grit).
i’m okay, though, with not knowing much about the “beast.” still, though, the last encounter is just downright confusing. of course we wonder if jake has just been imagining the thing the whole time, as it seems to represent her past (doglike, and a “thing” back in australia she thinks she sees is doglike and makes her thoughts roam immediately to kelly), but lloyd sees it too. what, then, does that tell us? not much of anything, i’m afraid. i don’t need to know what it looks like – the yellow eyes are enough – but a little tidbit, something, would’ve made the scene (and thus the ending) a whole lot different and perhaps better. and if this thing does truly exist, and is truly some terrifying beast, do lloyd and jake make it out? i guess so. i’m just not really sure what the ending signified or what it meant. maybe it was the final, true death of jake’s life before, now that she has found herself someone she can be friends with, now that she feels safe with lloyd just downstairs. i really don’t know.
and what was with the lamb that they brought into the cottage? what purpose did it serve? i guess to maybe show us that something had been there, but i’m unsure on that, as jake seems to be chasing it down and i don’t know how it would’ve gotten to the lamb. very nicely and creepily done, though, that bit. one other wonderfully done aspect that i must comment on is that the book never falls into the classic mystery/thriller trap by making lloyd be someone from her past. kudos there, i was anticipating him to be “in” on something the whole time, but as it turns out i suppose he was just a lonely man who found a friend in jake, too. another thing: jake’s past with sex work. i find it to be interesting because i think when you’re reading it, your immediate reaction is, “of course jake couldn’t have partook in sex work.” because it seemingly goes against what we think we’ve learned about jake, her strength and her self-sufficiency, which of course is another display of the misogyny we’ve all got hammered into our brains. but i think it’s a nice element that shows us sexism, why judging a book by its cover is so harmful and faulty, and a multitude of other things.
okay, so with that being said, my questions:
was jake’s family life dysfunctional? was there some hint that we didn’t see?
what purpose did otto serve in the story, exactly?
what about carole? what’s the story there, with the shoe, and the opal earring?
and kelly? jake later says, “she’s just a dog,” but why the strangeness?
did kelly and the “monster” somehow coexist in jake’s mind?
was the monster real?
what happened to the lamb?
if the monster isn’t real, then what does this mean for lloyd finally seeing it?
is lloyd’s past important?
what about the ashes, and lloyd’s burial?
how does jake’s relationship with dog and other animals affect the book?
are the birds truly a harbinger of death, or is it simply jake’s memory of them singing as she burned everything down that associates them with it?
what narrative purpose does the pigeon serve?
is jake truly running away from otto, or from her past before that?
overall, quite good, but i’d only recommend it with some warnings as well as “buts.”