After the Fire, A Still Small Voice – Evie Wyld
This is the debut novel from a young female writer who runs Review, an independent bookshop in Peckham, near where Wyld also lives and works. This arrangement also resulted in the publication of ‘All the Birds, Singing’ in February this year, shortly after she became one of Granta’s 20 best young writers. So it is safe to say this set up is working for her.
This is the point where I must confess to bias, as Evie’s father Andrew was one of my dad’s most beloved friends and colleagues. When I was quite small, we went to see the Wylds for lunch and the adults were having a snooze in the garden of Andrew’s home in the ruins of a temple in the Isle of Wight. The garden contained a large and powerful trampoline, and I seized the opportunity to bounce on it solo. Higher and higher I soared, until my hubris resulted in me flailing in an arc before crumpling to the ground in a heap. When I could see again, Andrew’s face was beaming kindly down at me, reassuring me (quite falsely) that my descent had been elegant. Evie and her brother were already cool teenagers, and very tolerant of a younger rabble destroying their house.
This memory created a preconception about the tone of ‘After the Fire’ that turned out to be precisely wrong. The recent Royal Academy exhibition of Australian art showed exactly how little I knew about that entire country. Wyld’s novel was exactly the thing to shake me free of my ambivalence. She grew up in Australia as well as the UK, and is the writer to help the ignorant span the divide. The book spans several generations of a family bakery in the city, a stretch of Australian coastline, an insightful narrator who allows you to miss nothing but remains a close companion throughout, guiding you around the dialect – which seems dead on, certainly to the uninitiated beyond daytime TV at any rate. The characters are shown to be woven together within the narrative without being shoe horned down the reader’s throat: Franks’ fear and Leon’s photos of the dead tie them together just as their shared tendency towards wrath, punctuating their habitual gentleness that clearly marks them out as father and son.
The imaginative breadth in the narrative is illustrated when Frank, rusticating on the coast while he recovers, has trouble in the supermarket: “The shopping of the lady in front of him was curious. White envelopes and chicken livers. He imagined her at home, sitting at her kitchen table, scribbling address on the envelopes, stamping them and placing a chicken liver in each one, licking the seal shut; a bile of bleeding mail growing next to her, ready for the post.”
The swings of temper from the male characters combined with almost constant, background drinking emanate and echo from the source of disquiet within the novel’s landscape. Frank’s father tour in Vietnam seems to be just this canker, even during the tense calm of soldiers’ patrol before a firefight: “They came to a creek and it could be seen to rise, its belly expanding, its surface was the cross-hatching of elephant skin.”
Frank meets the neighbours one by one: the mute, ferocious Pokey and Vicky, who emanates a form of pleasant chaos that endears her greatly to the reader. Anyone who felt they were regarded as an odd child (or have been told as such, unfairly) will feel pretty great about Sal. This is a book describing the bakers, the warriors and the wanderers, and certainly for those who always want to read more about the sea (the sea). The image of catching abalone, prawns and squid with ease while sitting on the sun baked shore will have the reader licking their lips to check for brine.