23. After the Fire, A Still Small Voice by Evie Wyld

Published in 2009. This Edition: Random House Australia, 2010.

Winner of the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, 2009.

Shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, 2011.

“He was still whole, there were still things that one man alone was worth.” 

Frank Collard turns to the wild, and his grandparents’ rustic outpost in the swamplands, when an abusively disastrous relationship shatters his heart. Lonely, he gradually inches away from being corralled by the teeming landscape that surrounds his shack, to becoming a part of it, blending gracelessly and gruffly into the local milieu. Though he adapts the semblance of a normal life, rooted in work and earnest, albeit thorny, social interaction, he shares little of the past he’s fled. His reluctance to unburden himself of old hurts mirrors the journey of his father Leon, an extraordinary maker of cakes who found himself hard-pressed into military service, feeling it change him perhaps irreparably, as it did his own father, who volunteered eagerly, yet found vital parts of himself effaced by the reality of war.

There is the distinct impression one sometimes receives, when reading of something grand, or sweeping, or otherwise elaborately contrived, that a character has just done in the book one’s reading. The feeling is akin to furrowing the brow and exclaiming, “Well, that’s just not how real people behave, is it?” It is worth noting right here that Evie Wyld’s book is built on the structure of something unflinchingly honest—even the way it flinches is honest. While reading, one gains the impression of absorbing something stripped to barebones and left in the sun to roast, of prose subjected to a rigorous, flinty syntax, studded through with alarming pinpricks of raw beauty.

Wyld is at her best, here, when discussing grief, and the book could be considered a generationally unfolding sorrow-documentary, of a kind that dampens our eyes and makes us suck in our breath, with the laughter we laugh when things are good and proper miserable, so that to laugh about it is the only sane recourse. What is particularly laudable is the manner in which Wyld inserts gut-spasming woe into the most domestic and non-extraordinary of settings. Witness, for instance, Frank’s messy navigation of girlfriend-withdrawal, in the aftermath of a nasty confrontation that effectively seals their rupture:

“The toast pinged up, and, crying, he buttered it and daubed it with jam, inhaling deeply and letting out long shaky breaths. He ate it breathlessly between hiccups. His mouth, which at that moment had nothing to do with him, would not stop making the sound ‘Aaaaaaaa’ like a stiff door opening. He lay on the floor, a smear of jam on his cheek, and mashed the last of the bread into a wet pap with an open bawling mouth. The crusts sat on the floor. He swallowed and breathed in sharply, then cooled his crying to a whimper, then to sniffling and then just to staring. The sun moved across the kitchen floor, regardless.”

The author writes this so convincingly that we accept a grief so cavernous as to unman Frank, a relentless sadness that chokes, rendering useless the elegant protestations of studied melancholy. There are no fainting couches here, no dainty snifflings into handkerchiefs. I especially love the way in which Frank’s mouth “…at that moment had nothing to with him…”, reminding us that when we are this transported outside ourselves with a surfeit of intense emotion, even our anatomy feels remote, conducted by another, out of our sight, outside the realm of interest.

Though Frank and his father lead separate, near-diametrically opposed lives on the page, the ways in which Wyld unites their divergent stories with lashings of past trepidation, of an unquantifiable sense of void, are skilful and subtle. Both men feel themselves hunted and haunted by the nigh-unassailable sensation of being pursued into unknowns. Nothing in their resentment-riddled, mysteriously ill-articulated communion, or lack thereof, allows for the sharing of this unified phobia; neither of them knows the other suffers in a language so well suited to his unique understanding. The reader wonders, for the duration of the reading, whether or not it would make a difference to their relationship if, for instance, Frank were ever told of the dreadful doubts Leon nursed while at war:

“Tears on his face, he felt the teeth of a terrible thing on the back of his neck, breathing through its nose on him, in, out, hot, pant.”

Some may find it unrewarding that the exact cause of the father-son malaise remains largely unearthed. It can be galling to consider that Frank and Leon might have fallen out over some poorly edited snafu, a minor discrepancy that wounded both their masculine prides; perhaps Frank’s girlfriend wonders at this, as she tries to sift through the rubble that nourishes a long-term vow of silence. Personally, the ambiguity marshalling the quietness between these men works admirably; it leaves it to the reader to devise reasons, grand or minute, and it prompts speculation over how much of the events of the last chapter of the novel coloured Frank’s perception of Leon, and Leon’s musings over Frank. This is good writing, the skilfully underscored balance of omitting just enough, of never bludgeoning the reader over the head with detail; those of a discerning, thoughtful bent will notice appreciatively (while those inclined to fast-food in their literature will probably have put the book down by now).

Grief and terror couple and uncouple against a background of settings one would initially think too bland (save for the backdrop of Leon’s outpost and battlefield, which Wyld blesses with no war paint, just irksome bush scratching the legs and loosing the bowels of boys pretending at soldiers) to support their movement through the chapters. Yet none of the settings read as anything less than exquisitely suited to the unfolding of each private, stunted drama. The dirt and insect-framed jungle wilderness that surrounds Frank’s shack, the family bakery in Parramatta to which Frank returns, despite himself, in search of his father (the same bakery in which his father once turned out elaborate baked goods in a thorough, calm manner; the very bakery in which he courted Frank’s future mother), the home of Frank’s sole friendly family unit, in the unkempt northlands: all these locations in the novel are implacable, inviting themselves near-perfectly for Frank’s fumbling self-discovery. The author infuses as much detail (without rendering her landscapes in a saturated style) to these places, making them represent geographic markers as well as placeholders for the full range of human emotional discord and desire, as if to suggest that cartography remains immune, for the most part, to the petty dramas with which we map our time on earth. This makes Frank’s sadness and stubbly conflicts simultaneously relevant to him, and gloriously, disturbingly irrelevant, given the sweeping dismissal of Enough Time: a fact of which Frank himself seems all too cognizant for much of the novel.

Yet the mission statement of Wyld’s book, if there can be said to be but one, is not as reductive as “Life causes despair to run roughshod all over you; therefore, despair.” The gnarled, honest interactions he shares with Sal, the precocious child of the aforementioned family unit, are some of the best passages of the book, and attest to the contrary of prevailing desolation. Their unlikely bond speaks instead to the surprising friendships that can be worked at when embarrassment and artifice are cast aside. Beset at every dirty, suspicious corner with the long arm of the past, Wyld’s grittily redemptive novel seems to whisper, “This is the way you come back to yourself; this is how to banish spells of unremitting dark: gracelessly, naturally, with pain—the only way possible.”

This is the third book I’ve read and reviewed on my personal reading list (which you can see here) for The Bookette’s British Book Challenge 2011.

3 thoughts on “23. After the Fire, A Still Small Voice by Evie Wyld

  1. Pingback: British Books Challenge @The Bookette « Novel Niche: A Place for Books

  2. Beautiful review, as always. I love the excerpt- the simple everyday act of toasting the bread set against an overpowering grief, so very real, and so visceral. I am glad to learn of this book – it sounds lovely, and the title in itself is very moving.


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