Evie Wyld identifies herself as English, but there is an Australian sensibility about this novel that derives from her long acquaintance with this country. It’s not just the superb evocation of our landscape, it’s also Wyld’s familiarity with the way Aussie blokes bottle up their emotions as if to let them loose is to fail a test of male identity. This is a novel about the intergenerational damage done by war, explored from that curious Australian perspective, one that is blind to the histories of refugees and migrants who come here from war-torn places, but is acutely sensitive to the ANZAC myth and its successors…
The title is a quotation from the Book of Kings:
And after the earthquake a fire; [but] the LORD [was] not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.
1 Kings 19:12 (King James version)
In context, this is a condemnation of excessive zeal and terrible vengeance, and an exhortation towards a gentle temper, which ‘beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.’ 1 Corinthians 13:7
It’s a most apt title because it encapsulates both the message and the mode of this beautiful, sad novel. Set in a continent whose moods are likewise biblical in their beauty and their terror, Evie Wyld’s story deals with great and terrible torment, but it does so in a quiet and gentle temper.
The story begins with Frank, who’s just broken up with his girlfriend Lucy and retreated to his father’s shack in the Queensland canefields. He lives alone, punishing himself but not really dealing with his issues. In alternating chapters, we learn the story of Leon, whose father Roman came back from the Korean war as a man entirely broken, incapable of functioning in the world. As a young man Leon was trying to come to terms with that when he himself was conscripted for the Vietnam War. His return to civilian life was both more and less problematic but it affects his relationship with his son Frank no less acutely.
Wyld is reserved in her descriptions of the horrors of war but shows the effect on the mind with great clarity. The ripples spread beyond the three generations of Collard men. All three try to run from their demons and fail; nurturing women flounder in the face of psychological torment they do not understand. There is no resolution for the inchoate terror in Roman’s mind, and poignant missives from his wife to their son Leon fall on ears deafened by their own exposure to war.
For the Vietnam vets who rescue Leon from his sojourn in the desert, a hideout in the outback where the rules of normal life do not apply is an oasis offering succour. Leon, however, finds no relief until he surrenders to a religion which demands control over his life but alienates him from his son. For Frank, with only the company of a couple of chickens and a strange seven-year-old neighbour, the shack is no haven in which to heal himself. The surrounding bush is menacing; there are sinister acts of unexplained violence; and his body is attacked by sun and wind and Australia’s small but nasty wildlife.
Is there redemption for Frank? Part of the pleasure of this book, apart from the author’s evocative prose is that Wyld’s style has its own reticence. The structure of the book eventually brings connections together, but there are silences about the past and the future in the text which mirror those in the characters’ minds. Book groups would enjoy discussing it, I think.
Author: Evie Wyld
Title: After the Fire, A Still Small Voice
Publisher: Vintage (Random House) 2009
Source: Kingston Library
Fishpond After the Fire, A Still Small Voice