‘After The Fire, A Still Small Voice’ by Evie Wyld

AfterTheFire

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.

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18 thoughts on “‘After The Fire, A Still Small Voice’ by Evie Wyld

  1. Right… ummm… I think I know what you are talking about. And yes, I deliberately didn’t mention anything in this review because I didn’t want to spoil things… Looking forward to further thoughts from you when you’ve finished the book.

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  2. Hehehe… all will become clear when you read the book, Jackie… or maybe not? 😉
    I’d offer to loan you my copy but I think I’ll be taking this one home to my dad — I reckon he’d enjoy this one.

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  3. Hope you enjoy the book when you get around to reading it, Isabel. But the book’s not really about the Vietnam war — perhaps only a couple of chapter are set there.
    Thanks for the list of Vietnam war books — it’s massively long, isn’t it? I can recommend “Chickenhawk” by Robert Mason. It’s non-fiction and very hard-hitting. I read it when I was backpacking back in 1998 (I did a book swap with a chap from New Zealand). It used to infuriate me that I met loads of Americans while travelling and yet not one knew that Australians had fought alongside them in Vietnam. The ignorance was appalling.

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  4. I really enjoyed this book too. I’m so glad to see it get some serious attention. Thanks for reviewing it, a difficult job given the way the story is set up. You did a good job.

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  5. Thanks, Sandra. I didn’t want to really give anything away when I wrote this review, because a lot of the enjoyment comes from joining the dots as you go.

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  6. Oh I must get my mitts on this book as it sounds utterly brilliant. I heard her on the radio ages ago and thought ‘oooh that sounds good’ and then as youdo when you have too many books thought ‘do I need it’ and now find I do need it very much. I love that cover!

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  7. My synopsis probably makes it sound depressing, but it’s not. Sure, it’s sad and heart-breaking in places, but there are bits that are uplifting – for example, Frank develops a friendship with a little girl, which really surprises him because he regards himself as a pretty tough nut. And later he admits his violent past, which shows he’s coming to terms with the worst bits of his character. In many ways, the men don’t talk in this book, but they do grow emotionally.

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  8. My synopsis is probably too brief and simple to push anyone’s buttons, to be honest. I’ve skirted over so many issues, it’s not funny, but it’s a difficult book to review without giving away crucial plot spoilers. I’ve seen other reviews describe it as a war novel, but it’s not really about the Vietnam war.
    I think you probably would like this book, Polly. Leon’s side of the story is particularly touching, because you get to follow him growing up in the 1950s and 1960s. I really enjoyed the love story between him and the girl from the local greengrocers. Very sweet, but heart-breaking.

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