Evie Wyld,
After the Fire, a Still Small Voice
(Pantheon, 2009)

Australia. The word conjures up images of unique creatures in a vast landscape mostly devoid of people. If you know anything about Australia, you know that most of the population is in pockets along the eastern coast. After the Fire, a Still Small Voice, by Evie Wyld, is a novel set in this area. When I first saw the title, I immediately thought about the massive wild fires north of Melbourne that were all over the news just a few years ago. The cover of the book even shows the outer edge of a massive fire in the Outback. But what this title is really referencing is the mental pain and anguish people sometimes go through for various reasons. The main characters of this book are Frank, Leon and, to a lesser degree, Leon's father.

Frank is a city person who escapes a failed relationship by running away to the small town of Mulaburry. His grandparents had once owned a beach home here. Long abandoned, the place is just a run-down, barely held-together shack now. Despite his rustic living conditions, Frank nurses his memories by fishing, drinking and fixing up the shack into a more habitable condition. Eventually, he makes friends with his neighbors. They have a lonely, strange, 8-year-old daughter, Sal, who likes to hang around Frank. Shortly after Frank's arrival, a young teen disappears. Before too long, Sal also goes missing. Who do you think the main suspect is?

Before I can talk about Leon, I have to talk about his father. Leon's parents immigrated to Australia to escape the ravages of Europe and World War II. They opened a bakery that did rather well. When the Korean War started, this proud new Australian citizen volunteered to fight for his country. But the man who left was not the one who returned. Whatever mental baggage he returned with, Leon's father never took the reins back on the bakery. It was no longer in him to run the business. Instead, the family kind of disintegrated as his father stopped coping with society. War has a way of changing people, often for the worse.

Leon finds this out personally all too soon. He is drafted to fight in the Vietnam War as a machine-gunner. The most graphic scenes in this novel take place during his tour of duty. Like his father before him, Leon slowly has his psyche destroyed. Like his father, he too comes back from battle with a form of traumatic stress disorder. And like his father, he cannot step back in to a semblance of normal life again. In both men's case, they withdraw from the world and their loved ones. The horror of their experiences will obviously haunt them for the rest of their lives. Unfortunately, the impact goes beyond the individual as it hits their children as well.

After the Fire is the debut novel of Evie Wyld. As you might have guessed, Evie is from Australia, although she lives in the U.K. I watched a short video online in which Evie describes her work as "a romantic thriller about men not talking. " She also says the story is "about the gap that exists between the person you know and love and the things that they've done and all the stuff that's crammed in that you would never know."

I wanted to like After the Fire, a Still Small Voice more than I did. I did not have a problem with the writing style. In fact, there is one scene where Frank has an encounter with a shark while he was swimming that had me on the edge of my seat. The war scenes with Leon are totally captivating and seem very realistic. (Side note: I'm ready for Evie to write a war novel). I just could not piece together the connection between the characters until way too late in the story. That drove me nuts. There is also the red herring of the child abduction that I did not care for. I had issues with the timeline bouncing all over the place, too. I seriously have to wonder if I read it again, knowing what I finally knew at the end, I would appreciate the novel more. I should also mention that the pace of the book is rather slow most of the time. This is not a quick read. You will need to focus a bit more than your normal shut-your-brain-off-and-enjoy-the-ride novel.

[ visit the author's website ]

book review by
Wil Owen

30 October 2010

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