It was with some relief that I found the book patiently waiting for me when I arrived home and I now recall that I was reading Alistair Morgan's Sleeper's Wake at the same time. Both books entail emotionally traumatised men fleeing to an isolated cabin to try and face down their demons and I ended up in a state of utter confusion about both books and with rapidly dissipating sympathy for the pair of them, so put Evie's book on hold until now.
In fact sometimes a book needs its right moment and I was ready to meet Frank & Co this time around.
Frank has headed from Canberra to his grandparents' shack on the east coast of Australia after the breakdown of a relationship. His childhood has been marred by violence leaving Frank emotionally shot to pieces and it's clear he has taken few emotional coping strategies or any degree of resilience into adulthood with him.
Running alongside is the dual narrative of Leon, child of immigrant parents who run a baker's shop in Sydney.
Leon's father is drafted to fight in the Korean war, an experience that will understandably leave him a changed man, and not for the better, so it's little wonder that I held my breath when Leon was called up for service in Vietnam.
The structure is intricate and intriguing because Evie Wyld makes her reader work, doesn't quite spell it out but instead offers tantalising moments of knowing, drops subtle hints at those little crossroads when the stories interlock and work towards the slow revelation of how the lives of these men mesh together.
I won't spell it out either, though others may have done so because it does open up a wealth of discussion, but for me it was the uncertainties of this that made this novel such a good read. I like those moments of retrospective understanding, those eureka moments and I like those 'I wonder if...' thoughts along the way so I won't deprive you of them.
This is that harsh world where the men fight and the women suffer (and I've written that in my copy but can't now decide whether it's an original thought or I read it elsewhere) so sympathies fly all over the place and as the back story fills in, the mists clear and with it the emotional fall-out for these three men becomes evident. Men in a state of mental extremis who exhibit all those inhibitions that some have for displaying or expressing emotions, there is a hefty, leaden silence about the past surrounding them all and eventually they all have to seek redemption somewhere.
You somehow know that if any of them are going to take the lid off it's going to be impressive and messy and heart-wrenching and it was,
'He drove home in a vacuum, shallow breathing, and when he got to his house he sat in his truck and cried. Strings of spit and snot attached to the steering wheel and every time he wiped his face to try and calm himself down it got worse, and waves of something terrible crashed down over him, and he bawled like he was the last man on earth.'
Salvation comes in various guises for all of them, for Frank...
'When he was finished with crying he went inside and drank himself to sleep. It was the only possible solution and he thanked it as it went down his throat, thank God, thank God.'
Leon finds his elsewhere,
'There was a needlework embroidery on the wall - in fact there were several. They said things like CHRIST IS BEYOND OUT UNDERSTANDING and GLORY IN THY NAME. The one that was the most impressive, that was decorated with hearts and flowers, roses and poppies, vines and oranges, read AFTER THE FIRE A STILL SMALL VOICE.'
You'd think, from the stunning title of the book, I'd have thought more about its significance as I read. It's a Biblical quote from 1 Kings 19: 12 (I had to look it up) concerning Elijah who had fled into the desert, but I was so caught up in the immaculate sense of place and time that I didn't, and I now wish I'd started to note the fire references much sooner. When I did they seemed to increase the significance of the setting in a dry, hot country where fire is such a perilous and all-consuming fear.
I dug around in a few Bible commentaries to find this
"The wind, and earthquake, and fire, did not make him cover his face, but the still voice did. Gracious souls are more affected by the tender mercies of the Lord, than by his terrors."
And in the end perhaps this is a book about mercy, about mercy for others and for the self and there's something about forgiveness woven into the bigger picture here too because the multiple atrocities of war feature powerfully and with that the inevitable and lasting impact of what war can make a man do.
Having now read it I was mortified not to see After the Fire a Still Small Voice at least long listed for the Orange Prize for Fiction (and it's shortlist day tomorrow). It really is an assured and astonishing debut novel and I will look forward to anything else that Evie writes, but I was then delighted to see it nominated for The Orange First Novel Award so I'm placated and can only wish Evie Wyld much deserved good fortune at the awards ceremony on June 9th.