Thursday, 2 June 2011

Book review: After the Fire, A Still Small Voice

After the Fire, A Still Small Voice in one Tweet-sized chunk:
Powerful, white knuckle writing. Debuts don’t come much more impressive than this.

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

This apparently simple statement spoken by one character to another reflects Evie Wyld’s prime concern in her stunning debut After the Fire, A Still Small Voice: the legacy of suffering. It is not so much the cauldron of war that she looks at, as its aftermath. If there are times when nothing you can say or do can keep the real sadness and horror of a situation at bay, then what happens next? As her biblical title suggests, this is about what follows the fire and brimstone of war. And what becomes of the human detritus emerging from it.

Freshly wounded by his girlfriend leaving him, Frank has retreated to his family’s Queensland beach shack in the middle of nowhere, a place he last visited as an already scarred teenager, battered by his mother’s death and his father’s abusive neglect. He’s drinking too much, has scars he cannot heal. The hot and hard Australian landscape reflects Frank’s arid mentality. He’s not only following a pattern in his own life, but one that has been played out repeatedly through the generations of his family.

Decades earlier Leon tries to hold his family together as his parents fall apart around him. His father Roman retreats to the isolated shack following his traumatic experience in Korea, leaving Leon to sculpt sugar figurines for wedding cakes in the family cake shop. But when he’s conscripted to Vietnam, Leon too packs his bags and heads off to a sticky war in the balmy jungle. War-induced suffering is passed from generation to generation, a chain of inherited pain. If this sounds slightly melodramatic, let me assure you that there is nothing overblown here.

Cause and effect; nature and nurture; then and now: these are some of the questions that Evie Wyld poses without attempting to answer. She neither moralises nor turns her intimate portrait into an ‘issues’ book. In the quality of her prose, delicate treatment of difficult subjects, and control of information, she proves herself one of the brightest debut novelists to emerge in recent years and more than deserving of her place as one of The Culture Show’s twelve Best New British Novelists. This feels like a debut novel that has taken risks, and it is all the better for it. Her attention to detail and focus on each individual sentence gives it a feel that is almost like poetry. It is a book best read slowly, with time to stop and think about what is happening. Descriptions are caustic – “He rubbed the grit of hair on his face” – but often delivered with a deadpan wit – “Like a man slow-dancing with an orang-utan, he walked the stove and cylinder, corner by corner, out of the shack and well away from the burning mattresses.” Wyld makes the reader work, encouraging them to decipher connections through allusion, and this exacerbates the heavy atmosphere to make for a sometimes uncomfortable read. But it is in its unflinchingness and refusal to delineate moral boundaries that it most excels. Leon is the more immediately likeable of the two characters, yet it is his emotional collapse that has set the precedent for Frank’s. There’s no blame, just a long line of cause and effect.

The empty landscape makes the characters turn inward, and it is hard not to feel that far from providing them the escape they seek, the landscape only traps them further inside themselves. The mood is creepy, dominated by suspicion and domestic abuse, missing children and an ever present fear of the bunyip. There’s an echo of Annie Proulx’s ‘Brokeback Mountain’ in its masculine cadences. Frank and Leon deal with troubles not by talking about them but by running from them, drowning them in alcohol, loneliness or violence. But even in their brutishness they retain their humanity, their fragility presented through the sugar figurines that Frank finds still standing in the deserted shack. Wyld seems fascinated with those who commit appalling acts but are not appalling people, and those who forgive them but are not victims. The relationships are intense and volatile, too important for these broken people not to sabotage.

After the Fire, A Still Small Voice isn’t perfect but it is fantastic: a white-knuckle read that is one of the most accomplished and impressive debuts I’ve read for a long time. It’s not dramatic and it’s not newsworthy, but it is what the novel does best – giving a voice to those the world forgets. There’s more than a hint of Even the Dogs by Jon McGregor here, in Wyld’s humanising of those on the fringes of society, in her presentation of the characters as they are, without judgement or romanticising their suffering. You won’t forget this in a hurry.

First published by Jonathan Cape in 2009. Edition shown published by Vintage in 2010, PB, 296pp, 9780099535836


jenclair said...

I love the title. The intensity comes across in your review, and I'm adding this one to my list.

Sam Ruddock said...

Thanks Jenclair. More titles should have commas in them, that's my lesson for today!

I hope you enjoy it when you get to reading it.