I’m a little rusty on my reviews, try not to judge too harshly. 17,000 words down on writing. The words don’t go together yet, but they are somehow a part of the same story.
Sheep make excellent book characters. Whether they’re being sheared, or the reader can hear their cries through a broken fence, I can’t think of any novels where the sheep have not added something to the story. In this story, they appear over and over as a mirror to the main character, Jake Whyte. Jake has finished running from a haunted past and is standing still in the dark of a small English town where she keeps a sheep farm, a lone barn dweller, and a few pyro teenagers.
I won’t go into the details about Jake’s haunted past because the killer part of this novel is the pacing and the structure. The novel has alternating chapters between who Jake was before a series of incidents and who she is after. In the before chapters, the reader learns her life as a teenager was not built on stars. She had a large family who she (in present day narrative) calls and just listens to the space of breath on the other line rather than talking to her brother or mom. The only person she does talk to is her sister who is not friendly. The reader doesn’t understand why until the final chapters of the book. Jake is a runaway that has now remained on her farm with a gun and a dog named Dog. She refuses all humanity that approaches the farm and only really trusts Don, the man that sold it to her. I will tell you that Jake has to run away twice in her life, once by her own undoing, and once by a forced lock and hidden keys.
It’s marketed as a mysterious thriller, which I think it is. I think that’s justified. There were moments in this book where my heart beat was pattering because I wasn’t quite sure what was coming next. There’s a terrifying dog character named Kelly, owned by Otto who is a pathetic sack of arsehole, if you ask me. It wasn’t a scary book, well, it was a scary view of human qualities gone shaky, but it isn’t a horror story. It’s more just a really dark novel that remains dark until probably the last sentence. There’s even a mysterious looming shadow that is hunting the living at the brim of the woods behind her house. The reader finds out just what this force is by inference, it is never really revealed, but truly I thought this force was going to be an awkward encounter with Bigfoot. No, seriously, that’s the kind of reader I am. I also almost believed in the Google Maps Lochness siting from today.
The problem I had with this book was that not all my questions were answered. Sometimes, I like if the author leaves a few points hanging. I won’t lobby around the fact that the reader never finds out what happens to Greg, who Jake dated on a runaway stint to a sheep sheering gang where she was ousted by a friend of her boyfriends who saw posters of her face a few towns up. I will lobby around the fact that there is no warning that this book is going both forward and back at the same time. I liked that because it was new to my reading plate. Other than Cloud Atlas, I had never read a book that could multitask in tenses, and move back and forth through a time spectrum in such a backwards way. It was a bit rocky at times, Back to the Future rocky sometimes, but it wasn’t REALLY obnoxious. It took me a few to-and-fros to understand what she was doing, but this was also the time when I thought the chapters were from two different people. I really thought the girl’s stories would intersect, turns out it’s one girl. WHOOPS, must have missed that one. As you can see, this was a little bit of work for my amateur reading mind to really figure out, which isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes we need a little reading arithmetic in our lives. Word problems of the bookish and blowzy.
The things that are on my list of grievances are shorter than they are long. I liked this book, it was mysterious, difficult to follow at times in a good way, and interesting. My problem was that it wasn’t fully thought out. Some things in books, readers just can’t fill in because they don’t know where the author wants them to go. I wasn’t sure of her ending story with the fire (if you’ve read this, you know what I mean). The description was missing logical steps to follow to understand how everything happened. There was no information on how she left home, how she recovered, what happened to the townspeople.
I also had trouble with the barn dweller. She accepts this man into her home with very little forethought. She does prove to be spontaneous and run her life on impulse previously in the book, but I also found her to be really untrustworthy with anyone, not just unsavory characters. I have mixed reviews of her hasty turn of feelings on this whiskied man. (Yes, I just made whisky a verb).
I’m not sure of the pacing (how many days he was there before he took over the guest room and the dog training), but it felt like very few. And this is a woman who trusts no one, sleeps with tools to kill under her pillow (I sleep with my car keys). It’s nuts that that relationship came so willingly. All you romcom girls out there, this isn’t one of those “it was love at first sight,” or “I met him and just knew” kind of thing, Jake is not that kind of woman. She has tiger stripe scars on her back and can shear a sheep without cutting to the quick.
This book was worth the read if the reader is willing to fill in the blanks, and follow it through, if only to see how delicately and with much fragility a writer can weave in the sense of smell (and other well-worn senses):
“I’d been up that morning, before the light came through, out there, talking to myself, telling the dog about the things that needed doing as the blackbird int he hawthorn started up. 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” (79/3191).
“The night sky is crisp with stars and I sit on the fence, listening to the cicadas and the night birds, the bandicoots and rats and all the live things that are out there, breathing with me. Not far away, the sheep are a dense and silent cluster” (497/3191).
“I smoked a cigarette. Down in the bottom field, one of the ewes ate from where the grass was still darkened from the dead sheep. They didn’t hold a grudge, sheep” (519/3191).
“The headlights lit up a lot of insects for that time of year, white in the beams, large-winged flakes like ash. It took me a while to understand that they weren’t insects, that it was snow” (1628/3191).
“The hot smoked air, the birds. The salted ends of my hair when it flew in my mouth. My family” (2594/3191).
Read any good books starring sheep or with sheep as side characters. I think they’re kind of like the setting as a character, that oddly noisy sidekick. Have any thoughts on the darkness in this book, or the narrative structure? Let other readers know what you thought.