Fiction – hardcover; Jonathan Cape; 304 pages; 2009.
Evie Wyld‘s debut novel After The Fire, A Still Small Voice hit the headlines last week when it won the prestigious John Llewellyn Rhys literary prize, which is awarded to a UK or Commonwealth writer aged 35 or under.
The book, which is set in Australia, follows two men, a generation apart, who bottle up their grief and are forever tormented by it. Their stories are told in alternate chapters.
Frank, who’s in his late 20s, lives in Canberra. When his relationship breaks down he moves north to start a new life as a recluse on the coast. He sets up home in the abandoned shack that once belonged to his grandparents and works part-time at the local marina. But he’s troubled by his past which threatens to unravel his tentative hold on the world.
Leon is the only son of two Dutch immigrants who set up a bakery in suburban Sydney following the Second World War. Their new life in a strange land is forever shattered when Leon’s dad volunteers to fight in the Korean War. Later, when Leon is a young man, he finds himself fighting an altogether different war: he’s conscripted to Vietnam.
The book interleaves these two seemingly disparate stories together to build up a moving portrait of men on the fringes of society who become scarred by battles, figurative and literal. It portrays their sadness, their loneliness and their melancholy in such a touching way it’s hard not to be emotionally affected by it. If nothing else, it superbly captures that space between people that prevents them from talking about the terrible things they’ve done and the secrets that they hold dear.
It’s a terrifically mature piece of work, belying Wyld’s age — she’s just 29. It’s even more impressive when you consider that the male voices she uses throughout the book ring true. And, if that’s not enough, she has all the descriptions of Australia, from the huntsman spiders that curl up inside your clothes to the smell of the eucalyptus wafting on the air, absolutely pitch perfect.
The prose style is effortless, the characterisation superb — she really gets inside the heads of these people without over-explaining anything — and the pacing is spot on. I’ll admit to holding my breath in a few places, because there are certain revelations that I just never saw coming, and I’m glad that the cheap literary stunts that could have been used to ratchet up the tension are clearly avoided.
After The Fire, A Still Small Voice isn’t a perfect novel, but it’s a highly accomplished one and very deserving of its recent accolade. I’ll be very surprised if it doesn’t collect a whole swag more.