Great swaths of her life were white space to her husband

fates-and-furiesFates and Furies
by Lauren Groff

This is some ways the very epitome of “literary fiction” and yet it defied my expectations many times. I had expected to like it, after thoroughly enjoying Groff’s previous novel The Monsters of Templeton. This is quite different, but once again, really good.

It’s the story of a marriage, that of Lotto and Mathilde. What makes this book different is that the entire marriage is told from Lotto’s perspective, and then from Mathilde’s. The narrative voice, revealed occasionally in square-bracketed asides, is first the Fates (for Lotto) and then the Furies (for Mathilde). As you might guess from that, Lotto’s story is all about his fate: who he is meant to become, what is meant to achieve. Mathilde’s story is largely about her fury, how it drives her.

“The Buddha laughed in silence from the mantelpiece. Around him, a lushness of poinsettias. Below, a fire Lotto had dared to make out of sticks collected from the park. Later, there would be a chimney fire, a sound of wind like a rushing freight train, and the trucks arriving in the night.”

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An underwater stillness, no wind or rain

All the Birds, SingingAll the Birds, Singing
by Evie Wyld

If someone had told me that I would rave enthusiastically over a book about sheep farming, frankly I would have laughed at such a ridiculous statement. Now perhaps it’s because the sheep farming is arguably incidental, and not really what this novel’s about, but there is quite a lot of it and yet I really loved this book.

How to describe this book? Jake (who, confusingly, is female) is living on an unnamed British island farming sheep. She avoids people as much as she can and seems to have run away from something in her past back in Australia. Interspersed between us learning more (although far from everything) about her past, we follow her present, where something or someone is killing her sheep but she is reluctant to ask for help dealing with it.

“Another sheep, mangled and bled out, her innards not yet crusting and the vapours rising from her like a steamed pudding. Crows, their beaks shining, strutting and rasping, and when I waved my stick they flew to the trees and watched, flaring out their wings, singing, if you could call it that.”

Clearly there is something dark in her past, which aligns well with the literal wet and dark atmosphere of the present, but the way it is gradually revealed is clever and the facts themselves were surprising, not what I expected, even with on reflection plenty of hints given. But the gaps that are left leave you still guessing, still piecing the full story together at the end, which I almost feel should have been frustrating, but actually worked for me.

Jake herself is an interesting character, brittle and stand-offish, but to an extent it’s left open whether that’s innate to who she is or the result of her past. She’s also a very strong person – though her age isn’t given in the present section, I got the impression she was still in her twenties, yet she’s running a small sheep farm single-handed.

But for all the hard work and difficult subject matter, there’s also humour. Black humour, to be sure, but it’s enough to lift the mood at just the right moments and make the story wholly human. For all Jake’s distance from other people, there are still some touching emotional scenes as well. Plus (and this went down particularly well at book club) there are two dogs that are very much major characters themselves, not just pets in the background, which is pretty awesome.

There’s also a gothic element to the book, with a few scenes that could be interpreted as in some way supernatural, but then again could just be Jake’s altered state of mind. Certainly the wild, wet and windy island, and Jake’s remote farmhouse surrounded by muddy fields, are a perfect gothic setting, and somehow the stark realism of some scenes, such as her rescuing a sheep that’s stuck in mud, only add to that atmosphere.

“An underwater stillness, no wind or rain, not even a small owl, just a thick blanket of silence. I shut my eyes, and felt the mattress creak as Dog loped up on it, and weaved himself between my feet. The room settled and I counted heartbeats. There was a quiet crackle then silence again.”

I really did love this book and will definitely be adding Wyld’s first book, After the Fire, a Still Small Voice, to my shelves soon.

Published 2013 by Jonathan Cape.

Source: Waterstones.

See also: Simon Savidge’s podcast You Wrote the Book includes a great interview with Evie Wyld about this book