After the Fire…

Every so often, one reads a novel that is truly surprising in its richness of characters and the world created by the author.  After the Fire, a Still Small Voice, the debut novel from Australian writer Evie Wyld, is a unique tale that spans generations, examines the deadening effect of violence and confronts the reader with the effects that deep emotional trauma can have on an individual.

The novel tells the entwined stories of two men, Frank and Leon, whose lives initially seem to share little similarity.  We find Frank establishing himself in a dilapidated, coastal shack after having been left by his wife.  Through his memories, we observe the difficulty of Frank’s childhood; his father, uncaring and often drunk, does a great deal of emotional damage to him.  He blames his father for many of his life’s problems and, as a result, hasn’t spoken to him for years.  Frank finds himself evading his emotions through alcohol as he tries to make sense of his misery.

Leon’s tale, which takes place decades prior to Frank’s, is that of a young man who idolizes his father, learning the family business in a Sydney bakery.  Leon’s father whimsically decides to join the military and is shipped off to fight in the Korean War, leaving the teenage Leon to run the business in his absence.  When his father returns from the war years later, he is a shell of the man he once was, traumatized and quiet.  Deciding he can no longer handle city life, he disappears to the country, leaving Leon alone in Sydney.  Years go by with Leon running the bakery until he is conscripted to fight in Vietnam, where he faces the horrors of war like his father before him.

Both Frank and Leon deal with their emotionally distant fathers in distinctly different ways.  Frank retains his resentment throughout his life, whereas Leon’s anger is diluted by sympathy as he begins to understand the immense weight of war on the emotions of a person.  The characters, despite their criticism, seem to realize, even if subconsciously, that their actions often mirror those of their fathers.

Wyld’s lyrical prose is gripping and intoxicating.  Through her descriptions of nature, Australia often seems like a character in its own right.  But her descriptions of Leon’s time in Vietnam are especially striking.  One example from the novel hurls the reader into the midst of war:

He heard Daniel shout “They’re in the trees!” and aimed round the side of the incinerator bin and saw a group of blokes running like buggery towards the trees.  He fired and a few bodies in black fell at the edge of the village; others, not in black, died with their arms flung out as they swam the air.  His tracers drew a line across the forest and black birds rose from the trees as smoke.  He’d thought that when he finished firing there would be nothing, only the squall sound of birds, but when he stopped the fire really began.  Hidden by the trees, the noise started up thick and it was clear there was more than one machine gunner in there.  He took more ammunition, shook to reload, shook the gun because it had jammed, shook it more, then thought everyone would kill him…He gave it a hard smash on the ground and the thing went off between his legs, digging a burrow in the dirt next to his ankle.  He brought a hand up to his eyes and gave himself a couple of seconds to breathe, before turning and firing that force field up into the trees again.  Cray looked at him and closed his eyes.  The air was shredded.

After the Fire, a Still Small Voice is a novel of rich characterization and depth that showcases the minutiae of familial relationships without seeming unrealistic or overbearing.  The characters are genuine and honest, and the Wyld’s writing allows the reader to experience their lives to the fullest extent.  Although the story itself is quite pragmatic and doesn’t always give the reader what he or she wants (notably with the distant and uncomplicated dénouement), it’s still a fantastic work full of poetry and pain that I would highly recommend.

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