After the departure of the woman he loves, Frank struggles to rebuild his life among the sugarcane and sand dunes that surround his oceanside shack. Forty years earlier, Leon is drafted to serve in Vietnam and finds himself suddenly confronting the same experiences that haunt his war-veteran father. As these two stories weave around each other—each narrated in a voice as tender as it is fierce—we learn what binds Frank and Leon together, and what may end up keeping them apart.
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.
Excerpted from After the Fire, a Still Small Voice by Evie Wyld. Copyright © 2009 by Evie Wyld. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
“Haunting and brilliant.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“Incandescent. . . . An eerie chiaroscuro of blinding sunlight and tenebrous bush, rendered in language so naturalistic and sensual it seems more felt than read. . . . After the Fire has the kind of dark shimmer that mesmerizes as it disturbs. . . . What distinguishes Wyld is her incandescent empathy for her male characters and the things they are unable to say, the assurance with which she reaches for a rough-edged authenticity over the easy pleasures of lyricism.”
“This surefooted and even-handed multi-layered tale is fiction writing at its best with characters so vividly drawn, they seem to literally leap off of the printed pages.”
“An astonishingly assured debut. . . . A stunning work from a brilliant new voice.”
“Mesmerising. . . . A novel both taut and otherworldly. This adroit examination of loss, lostness and trauma is the beginning of great things [for Wyld].”
—The Independent (London)
“A gritty novel. . . . Rough and beautiful. . . . It speaks to the muscle in Wyld’s writing, which in richly telling detail describes the experiences 40 years apart of two Australian men. . . . Wyld distinguishes herself as another fine Australian novelist.”
“Written in pithy, crystal-sharp prose, this is a compelling read that uses the Australian landscape to mirror its characters’ equally unforgiving emotional terrain.”
“Wyld has a feel both for beauty and for the ugliness of inherited pain. The mood is creepy—strange creatures in the sugar cane, grieving neighbors, a missing local girl—and the sentiment is plain: ‘Sometimes people aren’t all right and that’s just how it is.’”
—The New Yorker
“A terrifically self-assured debut. . . . It’s a cauterising, cleansing tale, told with muscular writing.”
—The Guardian (London)
“A searching study of the way war-induced damage passes from fathers to sons. . . . Uniting the disparate narratives is Wyld’s brisk, atmospheric style and her fascination with men who commit appalling acts, but are not appalling people.”
—Times Literary Supplement (London)
“Passionate. . . . After the Fire is not a book of simple feelings. . . . One must admire Wyld for her courage.”
“Just sometimes, a book is so complete, so compelling and potent, that you are fearful of breaking its hold. This is one. . . . With awesome skill and whiplash wit, Evie Wyld knits together past and present, with tension building all the time. In Peter Carey and Tim Winton, Australia has produced two of the finest storytellers working today. On this evidence, Wyld can match them both.”
—Daily Mail (London)
“Ravishingly atmospheric and wisely compassionate. . . . There’s no doubt that Wyld is a writer of immense abilities and depth.”
“A triumph of subtle, original and unsentimental writing . . . Wyld explores the restrictions and distortions in the lives of men who won’t or can’t talk through whatever is eating away at them [with] great restraint and poignancy.”
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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