Just when it had seemed that the most pressing question surrounding the outcome of this year Miles Franklin Award, Australia’s major literary prize, was if former winner Tim Winton could win it for a record fifth time, London-based Evie Wyld (33) has won for her second novel, All the Birds, Singing.
Included in the most recent Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists published last year, Wyld who was born in London in 1980 of an Australian mother and an English father, was shortlisted for the 2013 Costa prize with All the Birds, Singing and earlier this week won the aptly named Encore Prize which is warded to second novel as well as the Jerwood Prize for Fiction.
All the Birds, Singing which was described by the judges as “a powerful story about hard places and tough lives” tells the story of Jake, an Australian who is living alone, with her dog, Dog, in a remote old farmhouse, somewhere in Britain.
She appears to be on the run from a desperate trauma as she tends a flock of sheep.
A hidden enemy stalks her but she tries to make sense of her life, speaking aloud to the dog. Her state of mind is made obvious from the opening sentences: “Like a mad woman, listening to her own voice, the wind shoving it back down my throat and hooting over my open mouth like it had done every morning since I moved to the island.”
She discovers the mangled body of one of her ewes: “…innards not yet crusting and the vapours rising from her like a steamed pudding.”
It is a stark, dramatic, at times daringly ambivalent work. Wyld, who considers herself Australian-English, spent some of her childhood on her grandparents’ sugar cane farm in New South Wales, grew up in South-East London, where she lives and runs an independent book store.
As a writer she draws on both her Australian and British cultural influences. Her first novel After the Fire, A Still Small Voice (2009) was short listed for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.
The Miles Franklin Award, now in its 58th year, is open to non-Australian writers as long as the work is about Australia and is worth AUS$60,000 (€41,519) Tim Winton was a strong contender as Eyrie has already been widely - and well - reviewed in Britain and would seem a likely Man Booker challenger later this year.
It had, however, been expected that Winton would encounter serious competition from Tasmanian-born Richard Flanagan, who had also been short listed for a fifth time for his war novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which received positive reviews in Australia and will be published in the UK next week. Flanagan’s five-time short listing is something of a record, comparable with that of the late Beryl Bainbridge’s Booker career.
This year’s Miles Franklin short list is an impressive endorsement of the quality of Australian fiction. It also included the 2007 winner, the Aboriginal Waanyi, Alexis Wright, for her third novel, The Swan Book; Cory Taylor’s My Beautiful Enemy and Fiona McFarlane for her disturbing, and assured, debut, The Night Guest.
Wyld, who had travelled to Sydney to receive the award, has had quite a week, winning three prizes. She admitted to feeling wonderful, weird and a bit ridiculous. In her acceptance speech she paid tribute to Australian writing and particular to Tim Winton whom she regards as both a literary hero and a major influence.
The Miles Franklin Award, she said, was the prize of which she had always been most aware because of Winton’s association with it, a s a four-time winner, most recently for Breath in 2008.
Wyld may not have been the favourite as it did seem to be between Winton and Flanagan, but she is an exciting choice. Judging by the quality of the shortlist though, the real winner may well Australian fiction, never mind the prize itself.