Book Quote:

“Sometimes people aren’t all right and that’s just the way it is.”

Book Review:

Review by Doug Bruns (NOV 27, 2009)

Set in Australia, After the Fire, A Still Small Voice, skillfully tracks two narratives, each struggling to escape fateful trajectories. One, the story of Leon, traces his arrival on the continent, the child of European immigrants in the 1950s. Leon, his mother and father set up a pastry shop in Sydney turning out tarts and cakes. They live well, until, that is, his father volunteers to fight in the Korean War. He returns shattered and broken, and so Leon’s world is ruptured. An irreconcilable course is set and years later Leon is conscripted as a machine gunner in Vietnam. There he realizes a nascent thirst for violence which will shadow him presumably the rest of his days. In Vietnam, and experiencing a firefight, he photographs his first kill, “he found himself wishing he’d got someone to take a picture of him with the dead boy. And then he wondered where that had come from.” A theme of descending forces drives and moves him unwittingly.

In the parallel narrative, we meet Frank, as he returns to a rundown family shack, a previous retreat for both his father and his grandfather, in rural Australia. He is attempting to put his turbulent past behind him, including a relationship to which he contributed little but violence. He plants a garden, trying to eek out an existence. He seeks solitude, but neighbors intrude, and he attempts to force common civility upon himself and bring order to his fractured life.

The novel, in alternating chapters, relates the stories of these two men, until the parallel worlds overlap in a fashion that, though not altogether unanticipated, surprises the reader and brings a semblance of explanation to the narratives. When the stories interweave, the result is significant, if not profound. This is skillful and delicate writing.

In a short YouTube interview Evie Wyld jokingly relates that her book is “a romantic thriller about men not talking.” Indeed, there is romance, though little more than suggestive. And there is a slight inference of the thriller, particularly when a young local girl goes missing. But Wyld is being self-effacing in throwing out the cliche. “Men not talking” is a loaded phrase and suggests deep currents and subtlety, both of which she conjures up and dishes out in full course. There is a scene, for example, where Frank, taking a swim, is pulled unawares to sea. Afraid of what dangers lurk in the deep, panic rises as he struggles to shore when a shark appears, its fin visibly tracking him. “Frank floated on his back…Something bumped his arm. He raised his head and saw that he had drifted clear out of the bay and there was something in the water with him. After swallowing a mouthful, he felt for all his limbs and found them still there. A fin appeared a few feet away, not a huge fin, but still a fin and it didn’t look like a reef shark. It hung in the water, oddly still, waiting for him to make the first move.” The metaphor is successful and deftly delivered without beating the reader over the head with symbolism. There is danger to the murky depths and these men are trying to get out of the current.

It, danger, lurks not only at sea, but in the fields where it watches quietly, or so Frank fears. He frequently stares into the cane field at night, uneasy that something is lying in wait. Like war-torn Leon, Frank is in danger of being eaten alive by the life he has been delivered and struggles to escape its consequences. It is an ancient theme, as the book’s title, drawn from the King James Bible suggests. The biblical verse continues, “O Lord, take away my life; for I am not better than my fathers.” Can we out-swim that which we’ve inherited? Or is destiny, in this case violence, an indelible seeping stain? Wyld explores this question with stark prose that is, like the landscape described, at once beautiful and bleak. She punctures her writing with grace notes of description which render the characters, so starkly drawn, animated and full. For instance, Leon’s mother in the bakery kitchen: “His mother whisked egg whites so that the muscle on her right arm stood out like a stick of butter.” And, later, in school, Leon “felt his own body, a sluggish weight, pale and thick, a rock with a wooden shell.” Such writing sings and puts into sharp relief the dark nature of the world being described.

These men are haunted. The landscape is haunted. There is much that is bleak and desperate here, but it does not overwhelm the book, such is the skill at which these lives are revealed, the linage of violence and struggle defined. Wyld addressed this quality in a recent interview. “I’m interested in the idea that it’s not the person who is the brute,” she said, “but that the things that happen are brutish.” Even darkness well rendered can be a beautiful thing. I am encouraged of late at the quality of work of the new generation of writers. Evie Wyld is a Grantas New Voices of 2008 author and well deserving of the recognition. I look at her and wonder at how so much wisdom and talent can reside in one so young and fresh.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 42 readers
PUBLISHER: Pantheon (August 25, 2009)
REVIEWER: Doug Bruns
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: More books set in Australia:


November 27, 2009 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Australia, Debut Novel, Family Matters, Literary, Reading Guide, World Lit

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