"After the Fire, a Still Small Voice"(Pantheon Books, 296 pages, $24) is a gritty novel, full of ticks, lizards, sharks, dusty characters, hot weather, bloody events and muddy circumstances. Not in a bad way -- it speaks to the muscle in debut novelist Evie Wyld's writing, which in richly telling detail describes the experiences 40 years apart of two Australian men, in the end grafting their stories together, or trying to.
The first protagonist, modern-day Frank, sick with the loss of love, has left Canberra for a tiny beach town, where he moves into a motley shack once occupied by his grandparents. As he finds oddball friends and occasional work, his scars began to gloss over.
Four decades earlier, the other protagonist, Leon, keeps the family's Sydney bakery afloat after his mother leaves town to tend to his wandering father, who has been rendered spectacularly mad by his experiences in the Korean War. Curious about his parents' secret lives and about war, Leon finds himself in Vietnam, where his father's experiences are recapitulated in his own.
Back and forth the novel toggles between Frank and Leon. It would be ideal to say that the two men's lives and psyches are rendered clear and connected in the book's final pages, where arrival of relative quietude is, perhaps, the "still small voice" of the title, a reference to 1 Kings 19:12: "And after the earthquake, a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire, a still small voice." In the dizzying context of this novel, the reference could mean any number of things.
Connection and closure probably are Wyld's intentions, but even the most careful reader will have trouble figuring out how she wants the two lives to fit together, and what the offbeat references, clues, allusions and revelations that freckle the novel add up to.
Still, this is a good book, elevated by Wyld's distinctive prose, a beautiful if tangled jungle of places, people and action. Here's a passage in which Frank finds an old stove at his deserted homestead:
"Something dreadful had happened inside, and nothing he could think of made any sense. A big rat or a bandicoot, something with hair and long yellow teeth, claws and a thick backbone, had been cooked whole and left. The thing looked like it has exploded and then been cooked again, the stuff was black and hard and old. ... He found a stick and gave it a poke but it was welded on. He straightened up and looked at the stove with his hands on his hips. He rubbed the grit of hair on his face. ... Like a man slow-dancing with an orangutan, he walked the stove and cylinder, corner by corner, out of the shack ... . He left it, squat and angry-looking, at the entrance to the clearing."
Wyld, who grew up in London and Australia, knows her geographical and emotional territory, and distinguishes herself in this flawed but impressive debut effort as another fine Australian novelist. Like Australia itself, "After the Fire" is rough and beautiful.
Pamela Miller is a Star Tribune night metro editor.