[Blogger's own copy, Vintage pb, £7.99]
I saw Evie at a bar in Peckham once- it’s the sort of place where people often share tables. She was talking to her companion about writing and an upcoming radio interview. When she left the bar I asked her friend (and fellow Goldsmiths’ classmate) if she was famous and he said, “she will be”. We had a quick chat about writing and I made a note of her name. This was the middle of last year, I think, and he, of course, was right. Evie is the recipient of the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and she was shortlisted for the Orange Award for New Writers among others.
I guess I was intrigued by Evie not only because of the coincidence that day but also as she’s half Australian. I wanted to see what she would write about- and, given that she grew up on both continents, whether her version of Australia would differ from my own (having not arrived in the UK until I was 28). It’s narcissistic I know but there are so many reasons one wants to read a particular book aren’t there?
After the Fire, A Still Small Voice is the story of three generations of the Collard men. Two out of three men served in the war- the young Leon in Vietnam, his father in Korea. The latter is a baker, who having emigrated with his wife from Holland, teaches his son from a young age to fashion the sugar figurines for wedding cakes.
Out of Leon’s paws came a crumbling mess, a mix of nose and hat, of shoe and skin that ran together from the heat of his palms, blending grey in the middle. Out of his father’s hands a tiny sculpture, a person in a pleated dress, with a nose like a blade, grasping her wedding handkerchief, thin as a leaf, perfectly able to stand on her own two feet.
Leon’s mother is a shadowy figure, the woman who calls him “chicken” and takes epic-long baths in the evenings when her husband goes off to war.
In the next weeks, Leon would come across his mother staring into the open refrigerator, hanging there as though something unexpected had been put inside, the eggs replaced with light bulbs.
Of course, when his father returns from Korea he is altered and an adolescent Leon is left in charge of the bakery while his parents sort out the chaos of their lives. Then of course, he is off to fight his own war in Vietnam.
But this is primarily the story of Frank, Leon’s only son. Set in the present, the novel begins with Frank’s flight to a seldom-used family holiday shack, a move precipitated by a relationship collapse in the city. His days are spent fishing and working on the wharf and also befriending a neighbouring family who are haunted by their own ghosts.
… and the man beamed with brilliant white teeth. He had the look of a young boy dropped into a grown man’s body. The skin of his face was salt-rubbed, his eyes red and bright from the sun.
As we read on we see some of the issues from Frank’s past- the reasons for his fierce independence and his violent tendencies. And when another girl goes missing in the small town that Frank has fled to, we feel somehow that Frank is involved.
I cannot recommend this novel highly enough. The prose is exquisite and the characterisation impeccable. I was moved to tears at times (and not just because I’m homesick!).
Evie has managed to create a thing of beauty out of the ugliness of our everyday lives. Lives hidden behind the picket fences, verandahs and shopfronts. Out of the violence and pain and squalor she fashions a story of hope and grace. Unforgettable.
For a taste of Evie’s writing, here is an autobiographical account of a childhood illness written recently for the Observer: http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2010/jun/27/evie-wyld-once-upon-a-life-toddler-coma-nightmare