Tracing broken family ties across time and place
In After the Fire, a Still Small Voice, debut novelist Evie Wyld chronicles the stories of three generations of an Australian family whose lives are shaped by conflict and trauma. Battle may be the experience that connects the Collard men, but it also proves to be the family’s ruin. Again and again, family bonds crumble in the aftermath of death and war. Lack of a simplistic resolution and the searing descriptions of the changeable land and seascapes make this gritty, passionate novel stand out.
After the Fire unfolds against a precisely rendered backdrop of quiet city streets, dense bush and the vivid expanse of the ocean. The book opens with Frank’s journey to a beachfront cabin that belonged to his grandparents. We learn that his mother died when he was a child and that his father Leon was an alcoholic. Frank barely manages his temper and has bolted after a bad break-up with his girlfriend. He cobbles together a passable life for himself, living in the cabin without running water, using the sea for his daily ablutions and picking up work at the docks. The book then shifts back in time to Leon’s childhood in 1950s Sydney, to the small bakery his immigrant parents ran, and to the devastating effects of his father’s wartime experience in Korea. Soon after Leon takes over the bakery, he is drafted to serve in Vietnam. At this point, the chapters following Leon’s experience as a soldier alternate with those that trace Frank’s troubled life by the beach. As their lives unfold and the wounds are recounted, the reader begins to wonder if any kind of reunion is possible—or even desirable.
After the Fire is not a book of simple feelings. The visceral descriptions of the emotional and physical anguish experienced by the characters grow numbing, and the plotline involving missing girls in Frank’s seaside neighborhood is an unnecessary diversion. Still, one must admire Wyld for her courage—a less tough-minded writer would find an easy way for these two damaged souls to reconcile. Wyld shows that there are some ties that, once broken, may not be worth repairing. But like the still small voice referenced in the scriptural passage of the title, she also knows people carry on after a disaster, perhaps in an unimagined direction, but moving forward all the same.
Lauren Bufferd writes from Nashville.