The second novel from award-winning Australian author Wyld (After the Fire, A Still Small Voice, 2009) explores the checkered past of a self-reliant young woman, a sheep farmer.
When we first meet Jake Whyte, she’s tending her flock on an island off the coast of England. This is no Little Bo Peep: Jake is a tall, muscular Australian who can shear a fleece with the best of them. She’s also a loner; after three years on the island, she has no friends. To understand her, we must delve into her Australian past, which Wyld alternates with her English present. In a further twist, Wyld uses reverse chronology for the Australian sections. In the Outback, Jake is the only female member of a team of shearers, contract workers moving between sheep farms. Wyld is at her best capturing their work rhythms and cheerful profanity. Jake has hooked up with Greg, a good guy, but is being blackmailed by another shearer who’s found out Jake is on the run. That takes us back to her time with Otto, a sheep farmer who kept her as a sex slave. Did he also cause those wicked scars on her back? Jake had met Otto when she was a hooker and he had seemed the better proposition, but it was the wrong call. At last we reach the catastrophe that gave Jake those scars and forced the 15-year-old to leave home. The tricky narrative strategy has given Jake a past but not developed a full character. Jake has little interior, and that’s true too of her English incarnation. Instead of insights, we get more mysteries. What strange beast lurking in the woods is savaging her sheep? And who is the disoriented trespasser she shelters?
Wyld has ordained a permanently dark life for her protagonist, a stubborn fate that offsets the surprises and the reader’s enjoyment.