Set in the unforgiving landscape of eastern Australia, Evie Wyld’s accomplished debut tackles the inescapability of the past, the ineffable ties of family, and the wars fought by fathers and sons.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.70(d)|
About the Author
Visit the author's website: www.eviewyld.com
Read an Excerpt
The sun turned the narrow dirt track to dust. It rose like an orange tide from the wheels of the truck and blew in through the window to settle in Frank Collard’s arm hair. He remembered the place feeling more tropical, the soil thicker and wetter. The sugar cane on either side of the track was thin and reedy, wild with a brown husk and sick-looking green tops. The same old cane that hadn’t been harvested in twenty years swayed like a green sea. Blue gums and box trees hepped out of it, not bothered with the dieback. Once it would all have been hardwood. In the time his grandparents had lived out here, just the two of them, before the new highway, maybe then this place was a shack in the woods.The clearing was smaller than he remembered, like the cane had slunk closer to the pale wooden box hut. The banana tree stooped low over a corrugated roof. He turned off the engine and sagged in his seat for a moment taking it in. There was a tweak at the back of his neck and when he slapped it his palm came away bloody.‘Home again home again diggidy dig.’He could have driven here without thinking. He could have turned the radio up loud and listened to the memorial service at Australia Zoo. They were calling them revenge killings, the stingrays found mutilated up and down Queensland beaches. He could have let his hands steer him to Mulaburry, those same roads he’d hitched along as a kid, sun-scarred and spotty, scrawny as a feral dog without the bulky calves and wide hands he had now. But never mind that, he’d still pulled over on to the slip road and smoothed out the map and read aloud the places, and he still sent his eyes over and over the landmarks, searching for the turn-offs he knew were not written down. The tension in his arms had got so strong he wanted to bust a fist through the windscreen but instead, as a road train roared by and rocked the Ute in its wake, he’d clutched the wheel, crumpling the map as he did it, feeling small tears made by his fingertips. He had gripped the wheel hard so that it burnt, and he pushed like it might relieve the feeling in his arms. But it didn’t help and then he was outside, banging his fists on the bonnet for all that he was worth, his nose prickling, his throat closed up, the bloody feel of some bastard terrible thing swimming inside him. And when he was done and spent, he had climbed back into the truck and refolded the buggered map, and when he couldn’t make it fit together he’d laughed softly and started the engine.The air outside was thick with insect noise, heavy with heat, and the old gums groaned. The padlock on the door was gone and the idea that some other bastard might have claimed the place as his own nearly made him turn round and shoo all the way back to Canberra. The whole thing was suddenly hare-brained. Tearing through drawers at home trying to find some sort of clue as to what he was supposed to be doing, he’d found an envelope witha 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. Different hair, though – hers a blonde animal that moved in the wind. He was like his father, wiry, black, not from these parts. 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.It wasn’t difficult getting out of the rental agreement. He’d been late and short in the last three months since Lucy left. A week from then and he was on the road, two suitcases of clothes, the rest of everything in boxes for the op-shop and the padlock keys burning his thigh through his pocket. He’d taken the first part of the journey that evening, ended up in a motel close to midnight, with a sun-faded poster of a lion eating a zebra above his bed. He hadn’t slept, he’d drunk from a three-quarters empty bottle of Old and he’d let himself think about Lucy then. The sick feeling of trying to make it all right. The endless meetings they’d had across the table, to see if there was a way round it. The months afterwards when he’d sweated if he dropped a plate, the look on her face. Careful, or I’m going. Or when the coat hangers tangled themselves and made a jangling as he shook them, her pointed silence. There were other things he thought of in that wide-awake night. Being alone, fixing himself up. Getting done with the drink, sorting through the things in his head as she’d wanted him to.He stopped the Ute and opened the door. Holding his hat on to his head, he stepped into the sound of cicadas that shrilled like pushbike bells from the cane. He slammed the door louder than he’d meant to and walked towards the shack. The smell of sweet ozone and the clump of his boots in the dust was alien. It was darker and smaller than he remembered. It tilted inwards a little like a sagging tent. He cleared his throat.‘Hey!’ he called before reaching for the door. Inside it hadn’t changed, and it made his chest tight to see. There should have been broken windows, mess left by kids, dust and leaks, mould on the walls. But there was not. The shack had a feeling about it like it’d been waiting. There were no wildflowers in jars, it wasn’t swept, there wasn’t the sparkle of sand in the cracks of the floorboards, but the placement of things was just the same. It was like the last person there could have been his grommet self fifteen years ago and it made a warmth at the back of his throat. No one was there. There were no other belongings, just the old things that had lived there for ever. On a high shelf a grey elephant, a kewpie doll and a mother-of-pearl shell. The wedding-cake figurines of his parents and grandparents that had always stood on the telephone table, dustless inside their glass bell jar. There wasno telephone – he’d forgotten that. Sat on the stack of plastic chairs in the corner, a Father Christmas with a felt body and a rubber face. The wood-burning stove that had been put together a little wrong and now and again used to chug black smoke into the room, which would have his mother up and in the doorway coughing and flapping with a tea towel. He took a step inside and heard the familiar creak of the floor. The place wouldn’t recognise him this heavy or hairy. The sink was dry, with a sprinkling of dead flies upside-down in it. The beds were there too, a double and a rickety single all close together so that as a kid he’d lain awake, wide-eyed at the sound of his parents at night, wondering what is that and why are they doing it? A thin blue and white striped blanket covered his old bed, tucked at the feet in the way he hated, where you’d have to kick your way free, so your feet didn’t pin you down.He dragged out the mattresses and afterwards he slung the bed frames in the back of the Ute. The idea of sleeping on either of them filled him with dread. The smell might be there, his mother’s hand cream, or the witch hazel his father used for aftershave, in the days before he stopped bothering. Later it was more of a flaying than grooming. There might be particles of their skin there, he might find a long blond hair and know it was not his. They were things that needed to be forgotten about, for starters.
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group's discussion of After the Fire, a Still Small Voice, the stunningly accomplished debut novel from Evie Wyld.
1. In many ways, After the Fire, a Still Small Voice is about love stories: Frank’s grandparents’, his parents’, and his own relationship with Lucy. What do you make of these relationships? What do they say about what is possible between two people, and if there is a price to be paid for love?
2. What part does gender play in the novel? Are the women portrayed differently from the men? If so, in what particular ways?
3. The land and the sea play intimate roles in the lives of all the characters. Have you been to Australia, or any place that reminds you of what you read? Does Wyld capture the essence of the land? How do you think it shapes the characters?
4. Discuss the style of the writing: Did Wyld succeed in expressing the tone of the story in your view? What is that tone? What did you think of her use of simile, specifically with animals and fruit, to describe characters and their actions?
5. Why do you think Wyld chose to make Leon’s father a baker? Is it a profession that fits his character, and Leon’s? How did you react to Frank’s stating that he never understood why his father was a baker, since he was so bad at it?
6. Friendships are hard-fought in the novel, and formed through war and circumstance, with the exception of Frank’s with Bo Flowers. What do you think of Bo? Why doesn’t Frank decide to run off with him? Is the scene where Bo gets into bed with Frank significant?
7. The town where Frank lives is haunted by the disappearance of Joyce Mackelly, and the eventual discovery of her jawbone. The Haydons lose their daughter to leukemia. Leon’s parents abandon him, never knowing he is off at war. How does the loss and abandonment of children affect the narrative?
8. Compare and contrast the two men’s escapes: Leon traveling across the desert and his time at the campsite with other vets; Frank returning to the cabin to which his grandparents originally retreated. How do these journeys mirror or diverge from each other? What do the men’s choices say about their personal histories?
9. What is Sal’s role in the novel, and how is her journey into the bush different from Leon’s and Frank’s?
10. Race is an undercurrent throughout the novel, and occasionally an overt issue. What does it mean that Leon’s parents were Belgian Jews? How is their struggle for a homeland related or separate from the tension between Aboriginal and white Australians?
11. Neither, Leon’s father, Leon, nor Frank have any siblings. Do children without brothers and sisters carry a bigger burden? Sal is, through the loss of her sister, also an only child. How is her experience and relationship with her parents different or similar to the men’s relationships with their parents?
12. Do Leon and his father feel differently about their service, with Leon drafted and his father a volunteer? What emotions do we see in his father’s letters home? What are your own experiences with war? Did the novel help you explore any of your feelings about war, about servicemen and -women, about your own history?
13. Both Frank and Leon hear sounds that seem to follow them–a hiss, a growl, a rustle in the bush. Are they real or imagined noises? Why do you think they hear them?
14. Leon takes photos of himself after his parents leave him and throughout his time in Vietnam. Why do you think he feels the need to do this? Discuss the photographs he takes during the war, and what you think they mean to him. Why does he keep them afterward in an album?
15. The title comes from a biblical verse, which is referenced in several different places in the novel: “After the Earthquake, a fire” (on the lighter that Leon buys, p. 179); “AFTER THE FIRE A STILL SMALL VOICE” (an embroidery that Leon makes, p.235); “After the wind, an earthquake” (Leon waking himself during his journey into the desert, p. 263). Discuss the uses of the title, and what meaning it has for Leon, for Frank, and for the book as a whole.
16. Leon leaves the other vets when they murder a cow who has a calf. When he thought about being a father he “worried he wouldn’t love the calf enough” (p. 290). How is the cow’s death related to his becoming a parent? What do these two scenes suggest about Leon’s capacity for love?
17. Frank said in the beginning that there are “things that needed to be forgotten about” (p. 4). What does the novel suggest about forgetting? Is it possible? Is it necessary? How does Frank’s statement connect to Bob’s much later, that “there are some things you can’t get away from. . . . And that’s the pity” (p. 175).
18. Frank speaks with Leon’s new wife about forgiveness. She believes in biblical forgiveness; Frank believes in the forgiveness between men, between child and parent. Has Frank forgiven his father? Why does he leave without saying good-bye? Does Frank’s departure suggest that some breaks are unfixable? Are there some things that are unforgivable?
19. The novel goes back and forth between Leon and Frank, but never tells their story together. What do you think about this? What do you imagine their history was like? Would it even be possible to tell the story of their relationship, or would there always be something missing and forever misunderstood between them? What is your own relationship like with your parents? Did the novel, which explores the losses that families bear (sickness, murder, trauma, abuse, or the failure of love for whatever cause), change your understanding of your own family?
20. Do you think Frank has changed by the end of the novel, and, if so, why and in which ways? What do you think of Lucy’s choices regarding her relationship with Frank? Both Frank’s and Leon’s stories close on a note of grace–why do you think Wyld chose these endings for each story line?
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