An Australian woman named Jake Whyte has bought a farm on an unnamed remote island somewhere off the coast of England and although she has lived there alone for years, it is as if she has only just arrived, there is reticence, suspicion, distrust, an unwillingness to engage, to form new relationships or retain old ones.
In the opening paragraphs she visits a farm shop and we don’t get any sense that they know each other, there is no acknowledgment of neighbourly acquaintance. She is suffering from the violent loss of yet another of her 50 sheep that she farms with the help of her dog, Dog.
As the present day narrative progresses towards the mystery of the creature that is mauling her flock of sheep, alternate chapters reveal her past in Australia, from a point some years ago when she was working in a shearing gang back through a year or so living in remote countryside with a man, to her adolescent years and the significant event that caused her to run the first time. Is she a fugitive?
I was intrigued by the references to farm life and her stint working in a shearing gang, experiences I am familiar with. I grew up on a large sheep farm, and remember the job of ‘rousie’ (a wool handler) as we call it in New Zealand, not only working during school holidays helping out at home, but I spent a summer when I was 17 working for a local shearing gang on other farms in the area, although it did not involve handing the sheep to the shearer and I couldn’t quite get my head around how anyone could do that for four shearers without getting in the way.
Being a rousie was the most physically demanding job I have ever had (more so than the summer picking pumpkins, another in a vegetable patch, the kiwifruit orchard and that unforgettable summer job in a large freezing works/slaughterhouse).
Working in a shearing gang can feel a little like qualifying for an Olympic event, because while the rousie, responsible for removing the wool off the floor out of the way of the shearer as it falls from the sheep, separating the clean from the dirty wool, is paid by the hour, the shearer is paid by the sheep/lamb.
The more sheep they can shear, the more they will earn and there are indeed big competitions and world records (see David Fagan below) for those who can shear a sheep the fastest, without nicking or cutting them –something the farmer keeps an eye on when he releases the shorn sheep from the pen, there’ll be a few harsh words to any shearer increasing his rate at the expense of bloodying those precious ewes.
The photos below are taken from a visit to my father’s farm three years ago, now that he has retired, he created this one stand woolshed by converting part of an old cowshed. The shearer shears, while Grandpa explains to the children what happens.
The female narrator of Evie Wyld’s novel is tough, to be a female sheep shearer is as rare as Scottish sumo wrestling and not for the faint-hearted. Gender demarcation lines in the shearing shed haven’t changed much over the last century.
“The shed smells good. Sweat and dung, lanolin and turps. I can’t imagine being away from it.”
Ironically for all her distrust, she does allow a complete stranger to take up residence for the few days over which the story is told. He is something of a metaphor for her tendency to succumb to the one impulsive act that in her past has lead her astray and required an escape.
In that respect it could be a coming-of-age story, but there is much in terms of her character that is stunted, damaged, unresolved, that I am not sure she has transformed much, if at all by the end of the novel. It shows how an unresolved past will continue to haunt the present, if not healed.
It was an interesting read though somewhat unfulfilling for me, I had read quite a lot about it so perhaps I had higher expectations or maybe it was because I was less tolerant of the controlled narrative, I don’t mind the presence of a narrative framework as long as it doesn’t impose too much on the reading experience.
The writing was excellent and often that can be enough when the threads of a narrative don’t tie up as we want them to and certainly I am interested in reading more of her work, she is a talented writer and was worthy candidate for the Baileys Women’s Prize, though sadly this title did not make it to the shortlist.
The History of Sheep Shearing in New Zealand – a wonderful short film from the NZ archives demonstrating the shearing technique.
The Golden Shears – the Olympics of Sheep Shearing – David Fagan, world record holder, 14 seconds.
Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley.