Evie Wyld’s first book After the Fire, a Still Small Voice, has descriptions nearly as searing as her second, the Miles Franklin award-winning All the Birds, Singing.
The two story lines are about two men, a generation apart. The story of Frank, which occurs in the present is the dominant story and begins with him leaving Canberra for a shack his grandparents had owned outside a small Queensland beach town after his drinking had driven his girlfriend away. He had spent time at the beach as a child and soon after arriving
…he’d found an envelope with a picture of his mum in, taken on one summer holiday at the shack. There she was, hanging up a sheet in the sun, the same wide teeth as him, the same sort of boneless nose….By her shoulder was the window and inside you could just make out a jam jar with a flower in it. It was like being smacked on the arse by God. Couldn’t have been more than a month after she was hanging up that sheet that they’d been driving in his dad’s old brown Holden when a truck hadn’t stopped at the intersection. When he woke up there was no more mum and no more old brown Holden.
I guess it’s time for the SPOILER ALERT!
The second story line is about Leon and pretty soon, though not immediately, you realize that Leon is Frank’s father. At first the assumption is that Leon’s failure to be a father (preferring much drinking and women who smelled of piss and smoke) was caused by the death of his wife. As a young man who loved working in his parents’ bakery, he watched as his father went off to Korea and returned a broken man. Then his own experiences in Vietnam were only countered by marriage to the beloved Amy, Frank’s mother.
Frank crashes about in the little town, working occasionally, drinking often, but begins to make friends. Though he eventually makes an effort to connect with his father, he is ultimately unable to forgive him. He finds that Leon has moved to a town Billy Graham visited in 1956 and made a new life for himself there with Christianity at its center. Frank sees a wall hanging embroidered by his father that says “After the fire, a still small voice.”
Turns out this is from 1 Kings 19:12 (King James Version). “And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.” According to an online Bible commentary God is telling Elijah who feels abandoned in his combat for the Lord that He is more than just the storm god found in Exodus; he is telling Elijah that the truth of the word is his real power.
Perhaps the 10-year old girl who befriends Frank, along with her parents who were kind to him from the outset are still small voices who can bring him to a better place.
The wonder of this book is its method for unfolding the stories; going from the hard unpleasant facts of what the three generations of men had become to an understanding of how that came to be is a a tough but exhilarating journey.
Evie Wyld, After the Fire, a Still Small Voice, Vintage Books, 2009, 296 pages. Available at the UVa and public libraries, as well as Amazon.