Title: After the Fire, a Still Small Voice
Author: Evie Wyld
Narrator: David Tredinnick
Publisher: Bolinda Audio
Read: June 23 - July 02, 2013
Frank and Leon are two men from different times, discovering that sometimes all you learn from your parents' mistakes is how to make different ones of your own.
Frank is trying to escape his troubled past by running away to his family's beach shack. As he struggles to make friends with his neighbours and their precocious young daughter Sal, he discovers the community has fresh wounds of its own. A girl is missing, and when Sal too disappears, suspicion falls on Frank.
Decades earlier, Leon tries to hold together his family's cake shop as their suburban life crumbles in the aftermath of the Korean War. When war breaks out again, Leon must go from sculpting sugar figurines to killing young men as a conscript in the Vietnam War.
In her captivating and heartfelt tale After the Fire, Evie Wyld beautifully captures the essence of small-town Australia and explores the impact of the legacy of war passed on to future generations.
The story follows the lives of Leon Collard and his son Frank, two men who carry scars not only from their own experiences but also those of past generations who have been affected by war. Leon is the son of holocaust-survivor parents who have started a new life in Australia in the 1950’s to give their son a better future. When the Korean war breaks out, Leon’s father, a talented baker and pastry-maker, enlists out of loyalty to his new country – and returns a shadow of his former self, fleeing the family home to escape his demons. Forced to assume the position of head of the household, Leon leaves school to run the family bakery on his own, first whilst his father is at war and later when his mother follows his father to North Queensland, never to return. One fateful day a conscription notice to fight in Vietnam arrives at the bakery – and Leon himself is forced to experience the horrors of war.
Scarred by his mother’s death at an early age and his father’s escape into alcoholism and violence, Frank Collard has long cut off all contact to his father. After a traumatic separation from his girlfriend, he flees his home in Canberra to revisit his grandparents’ small cabin in Northern Queensland, where he remembers having spent many summers when his mother was still alive and their family was whole. Settling into his new life Frank must slowly confront his own demons – and start the process of healing and forgiveness.
Wyld’s novel is as brutal as it is beautiful, with heart-breaking moments which will steal your breath away and make your eyes tear up. She has a way with words which paints a vivid picture of rural Australia and its people, the despair which comes with isolation and loss, the harshness of the landscape imprinted on people’s souls. The novel exposes and explores many dark subjects, such as war, displacement, PTSD, alcoholism, domestic violence, racism, relationship breakdown and loss – and yet its last chapters opened the doors to a feeling of hope, of closure, of moving forward through the pain into a brighter future.
Having grown up with the trauma of war affecting past generations of my own family, I could relate to how these are passed on to future generations, of wounds that will not heal, of unspoken horrors, silences which hang dark and heavy, an unexplainable feeling of hopelessness and despair. All men in Wyld’s story bear their pain in silence, drowning their sorrows in alcohol, lashing out violently either against themselves or their loved ones when it all becomes too much to bear. As Leon’s mother mourns her husband – because the shell of the man returned to her is not the same person she married – her love for her son is pitched against loyalty to her spouse, and in the end loyalty wins out. Just as Leon is practically left an orphan, with absent parents, history repeats itself when the adult Leon abandons himself in his own grief after the death of his wife, leaving young Frank to fend for himself. The full extent of Frank’s childhood trauma is never fully disclosed, but hinted at in mosaic-like fragments of Frank’s memories.
The harsh Australian landscape, the strange unexplained noises in the night, and the disappearance and murder of a young local girl further highlight the theme of violence and menace. At times Wyld introduces a hint of mysticism, both in the landscape as well as her characters. The sugar-figures, carefully preserved in a jar in Frank’s cabin, not only symbolise the loss of happiness and love, but also the burden Frank carries with him from generations past. Creation and destruction – a biblical theme fitting the novel’s title.
Having listened to the audiobook version of this novel, I must also give credit to the narrator David Tredinnick, who did an excellent job in bringing the characters to life. His narrative was a pleasure to listen to, like a yarn around a camp-fire, his characterisations spot-on, his voice evoking a harsh and yet beautiful Australia as captured in Wyld’s words.
I was thoroughly captivated by Wyld’s novel and it evoked some deep emotional responses I found hard to explain logically. A beautiful, heartfelt story – highly recommended.