In After the Fire a Small Still Voice, love is a difficult, vulnerable salvation—its troubled characters aren’t sure it’s worth the risk.
“There’s a sad business in men being left alone,” observes a minor character in After the Fire a Still Small Voice, the beautifully moody first novel by young British writer Evie Wyld. That sadness, and its attendant unease, form the pulse of this book, in which loneliness is less a state of mind than a basic fact of existence.
Neither Frank Collard nor his estranged father, Leon, can quite grasp the origins of their isolation: Did either man choose it? Was it forced upon them? Set mostly in Australia (where Wyld spent time as a child) Frank and Leon’s stories unfold in alternating chapters, the two men’s lives shadowing each other. Frank has exiled himself to his family’s modest old retreat in a small beach town, having fled the bafflingly persistent love of a longtime girlfriend—and his own violent response to it. The broken down “shack” he inhabits is a relic of happier times, a childhood when his mother was alive and his father was someone he could begin to understand. Now it offers him the chance to reinvent himself as a reassuring sort of archetype: the strong, angry, self-sufficient man living off the land. That land, of course, is full of ghosts.
Meanwhile, in the years long before Frank was born, we see a teenaged Leon working in his family’s sweet shop, where he learns to bake tarts under the tutelage of his gentle, good-natured father. He spends his days expertly twisting sugar into miniature human figures and falling in love with a feisty local girl. But when his father goes off to fight in the Korean War and returns as a man undone, Leon’s life undergoes a profound shift. In search of healing, his parents move away, sending their son occasional, cryptic postcards from an unspecified location—in their absence, Leon is drafted to serve in Vietnam. There, he faces a set of horrors that echo those that plague his father, with one crucial difference: There is no one waiting for him at home, no one left to wish him well.
With uncanny insight, Wyld burrows under the prickly skin of these two men, prodding at their longings and fears, their traumas and mistakes, calling our attention to their shifting definitions of home. She has a keen eye for little intimacies: In an indelible memory of the woman he loves, Frank “rolled her on to him like they were both great fat seals, light in the water… Her knees and arms were cool, but the sun had warmed her head and she smelt of hot hair.” Watching a woman take her husband by the hand, “Frank was winded by the ease of it,” and Leon, observing his mother, sees that “the bun of her hair meant that her head was tilted at an odd angle, that there was space underneath her neck. He wanted to fill the space with something soft.”
Every interaction is a minefield of memories. Watching an acquaintance takes a pencil stub from her pocket, Frank
recognised the pencil as one that had been kept tucked behind his father’s ear at the shop. Then he thought how ridiculous, how stupid—there must be thousands of millions of pencils the same as that one. Even so he had to fight an urge to collect it from June’s fingers and hold it gently in his palm.
Wyld’s exactitude extends to a small but striking cast of secondary characters: Bob, the neighbor who nonchalantly befriends Frank; Bob’s wounded, unpredictable wife Vicky; and their tomboyish daughter Sal, who totes around a carrot dressed in Barbie clothes. Amy Blackwell, Leon’s first love, boldly licks lemon curd off his fingers, and his mother signals her joy in her husband’s return by her wearing her hair loose for the first time in years. Love, in After the Fire, is portrayed as salvation, albeit with its own unmistakable and not entirely appealing vulnerabilities. Frank, in particular, isn’t sure it’s worth the risk, though his caginess doesn’t make thoughts of the woman he left behind tug at him with any less force.
With her close attention to gestures and dispositions, her interest in the rhythms and routines of the characters’ days, Wyld leaves it up to readers to fill in the gaps between years and to infer the triggers that sent things spinning. It’s not clear exactly where things went sour in these lives—Frank refers only to having “got bad” before he began lashing out—but there’s a great, pleasurable tension in imagining what happened to turn the young Leon who innocently baked tarts into Frank’s broken father.
After the Fire, a Still Small Voice is a portrait of two men, but it’s also about the broader idea of men, as people with a specific—and at times seemingly predestined—relationship to violence, independence, family, and one another. Wyld’s perceptiveness and emotional honesty, paired with her restraint, have yielded a book that wears its weight quietly, and shines with intelligence and verve.