An isolated island off the coast of the United Kingdom and the heat-fueled landscapes of the Australian outback are key to this bizarre, fascinating tale of a bad girl trying to be good. Evie Wyld takes Jake Whyte’s story a step further by controlling our perception of time and place and reconstructing Jake’s attempts to make sense of her world by reading the clues she leaves for herself and for us. The narrative moves backwards in time as Wyld rewrites the rules of contemporary fiction, placing the reader in the position of deciding who to trust in order to understand why and what occurs.
Damaged Jake calls out for her past while working as a sheep herder in the sleet and rain of the Welsh landscapes. Living an isolated life in a dilapidated farmhouse, Jake becomes increasingly convinced that someone is killing her sheep. The next step for Jake is to contact the police then deal with the drifter she finds sleeping in one of the sheep barns. Until now she has lived alone, apart from her “Dog.” Her only contact with the outside world is with her neighbor Don, off whom she bought the house and who intermittently pops in to see how she’s going. Although she chooses not to mix with the locals, she’s still considered the most reliable sheep herder the area has ever had.
Like entering a strange, mystical dream, Jake cannot escape the feeling that something has hunkered down in the valley, waiting and watching and ready to stoop. Is this a sign of Jake’s endless paranoia or just a fractured symptom of a girl on the run? From the outset, there’s a sense that Jake just doesn’t quite fit in: the way her skin stings at the cold and constant irritation at the smell of wet wool, a smell so alien and so different from the dusty, dry smells of the carpet sheep in “their wide red spaces back home.” There’s nothing here to connect Jake to that time and with those people, other than the marks upon her back. In a past that is perhaps best left alone, Wyld shares with us Jake’s daily dislocation of time. Memories come back in fragments: the shape of an old Moreton Bay fig, the smell of frying fat and eggs, the terrible notion she may have been exposed: “You don’t fool me; I know about you and what you’ve done.”
Thematically heavy, the story’s twists and turns serve to emphasize one of its many motifs: how far can Jake rely on her memories of something until they start to become distorted? Jake hasn’t called her mother in over a month; the stress of talking only adds to her sense of hopelessness at her downward-drifting lifestyle. Other memories pile up: three young boys with their dirty socks and undies, the long-gone deep-fat fryer, Mum’s back-door cigarettes, the smell of sugar and eucalyptus, “the hot breath of the trees,” and her sister Iris, always out to admonish her.
Here is a woman who not only has to deal with the immense incomprehensibilities of her life but who cannot even benefit from coming to terms with the loss of a loved one. To Jake, her past is a perpetually recent event plagued with guilt from which she’s unable attain any emotional distance. Only the “in-between bits of her life” are available: the sheep-shearing in Boodarie, her friend Karen, probably still working “up in the Hedland,” and Otto, his sheep station so close to Marble Bar with its “hairy looking paddocks,” dry and wild.
The story is full of Wyld’s characteristic vivid description, (a technique she utilized perfectly in After the Fire, a Still Small Voice). At times a bit confusing (until we figure out Wyld’s Memento moment), the tale takes violent, sexually dark turns. Even the ribald, crude Aussie banter between Jake’s sheep-shearer mates cannot disguise the sense of hopelessness and the moral ambiguities of lives lived on the edge. Wyld peels away bit by bit the layers of Jake’s past, highlighting the inherent misogyny of rural Australia and the personalities drawn to this dark, subversive netherworld. Despite Jake’s less than stellar past, Wyld makes her a compellingly sympathetic, flawed character, one for whom the reader really comes to care.
Like Jake, we are suddenly stripped of the ability to fully make sense out of a chaotic world. Although there’s never really closure for Jake, Wyld achieves a pyrrhic victory of sorts, creating a plausible tale of trauma out of a woman's struggle to survive. Despite her unlucky circumstances, despite the bleak environment and the slow destruction of her life as she knows it, Jake is able to cling desperately for survival in a landscape suddenly bereft of rules.