- Roeloff Bakker
- London, England
Evie Wyld was born in 1980 and brought up in London, also spending a lot of time in childhood with her family in New South Wales, Australia. She studied Creative Writing at Bath Spa University and at Goldsmiths University, London.
Her first novel, After the Fire, a Still Small Voice (2009) was awarded a John Llewellyn-Rhys Memorial Prize, a Betty Trask Award, and shortlisted for an Authors' Club First Novel Award, a Commonwealth Writers Prize (South East Asia and Pacific Region, Best First Book), the Orange Award for New Writers and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. She was listed on the Culture Show in 2011 as one of the best new British novelists.
Her short stories have also appeared in various magazines and in the anthology, Sea Stories (2007).
Her second novel, All the Birds, Singing, which explores the life of an outsider through the story of an Australian woman living on an isolated British sheep farm, was published in 2013. It was shortlisted for the Costa Book Award for Best Novel, longlisted for the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction, and won the Encore Award. She has also written a graphic memoir, Everything Is Teeth (2015), created in collaboration with the artist Joe Sumner.
She works in an independent bookshop in South London and was online Writer in Residence for Booktrust from 2009.
After the Fire, a Still Small Voice (2009) is a remarkable first novel. Set in Australia but reaching back into European history, it is a sad and complex story of a family damaged by war and strangled by emotional dysfunction. In its sophisticated narrative, alternate chapters go back and forth in time to tell the stories of Frank, a young man running away from a traumatic relationship, and his father Leon, traumatised by his experiences of war and those of his own father before him. Frank and Leon are not particularly likeable characters, but both are complex and fascinating and their stories reveal, layer by layer, the way in which emotional damage is passed on father to son, generation after generation, so that each family member is both a tragic victim and a perpetrator of suffering, both sympathetic and repellent.
Frank adored his girlfriend, Lucy, but in his physical abuse of her - recalled in retrospect as he escapes to the coastal shack once inhabited by his grandparents - he reveals an inability to fully comprehend or empathise with the suffering he inflicts on her, as well as a refusal to accept responsibility for his actions:
He found that his hand was holding her face and squeezing it, and he'd been sure he was going to say something, but he just squashed her face with his hand, feeling the teeth through her cheek, feeling her breath hot on his palm and already there tears, but what did she have to cry about?
When Lucy leaves, Frank is genuinely devastated, but his feelings are those of self-pity rather than regret or concern for Lucy: 'He lay on the floor, a smear of jam on his cheek, and mashed the last of the bread into a wet pap with an open bawling mouth' (p.11).
However, despite his abhorrent behaviour, we do not condemn Frank, for the snapshots of his relationship with Lucy are intertwined with memories of his tragic childhood. His mother died in a car accident and he was left with Leon, an incompetent, damaged father who, though not deliberately uncaring, was consumed with his own suffering and could not provide his son with the loving care he needed. In Wyld's evocative yet understated prose, the harrowing trauma of both Frank and his father is skilfully conveyed through glimpses of small, everyday situations - those that are of the utmost importance to a young child - such as Leon's inability to prepare a packed lunch: the 'catastrophes' inside Frank's lunch box range from a can of sardines to a sachet of powdered gelatine to an old sock, before his father eventually gives up altogether.
Yet the story does not stop there, for the next chapter goes back to the childhood of Frank's father, and once again the narrative peels back the layers to reveal Leon's history and the make-up of his emotional psyche. In Wyld's poignant and masterful portrait of several generations of one family, there is no individual person who can be pinpointed as the source of blame, for each one is caught up in a complex web of dysfunctional family relationships, exacerbated by the devastating effects of war and bereavement.
The history of war in the family goes back generations: Leon's parents, Roman and Maureen, are European immigrants who escaped the Nazi holocaust and emigrated to Australia. As a young boy, Leon is fully aware of the dark side of life as he listens to his mother recounting the loss of her family in concentration camps: 'He felt the windows darkening, closed his eyes and his skin burnt hot where it lay close to hers … The smell of the room was different, like ashes, like hot, dry sand' (p.43). Ironically, it is Roman's gratitude for their new life in Australia which compels him to sign up to fight in the Korean War: ' "We have built a life. And it is a good life … I mean to defend our good life and our good country" ' (p.34). As Maureen fears, Roman never recovers from the psychological effects of war, and the damage that is subsequently inflicted on Leon - who is later conscripted as a machine-gunner in Vietnam - is in turn passed on to the next generation, Frank.
Thus, in this ambitious and far-reaching novel, the picture Wyld paints is not merely of the continuing cycle of domestic suffering, but of a sad, troubled world in which war is never far away, no matter which era or country one lives in. This continual presence of darker forces at work, domestically and politically, is presumably what Leon means when he refers to the 'thing' that haunts him: 'He lay awake in bed feeling his skin dry … licking his lips to taste the sun and the heat, to keep back the cold thing that waited there, under the bridge' (p.40).
The sadness of After the Fire is that it offers no real resolution - merely a melancholic sense of damaged individuals struggling on, unable to fully heal or connect with others. Frank's ultimate tragedy is his inability to reach out and express himself when his former girlfriend, the love of his life, comes to find him:
"You don’t even know what you've done to me, do know?" '
Yes, I do, he thought. I do know, I do.
As Lucy, frustrated by Frank's silence, turns to leave, Frank longs to run after her but finds himself rooted to the spot, silent and unmoving - perhaps he simply knows that he cannot give her what she needs. Wyld's prose - which is beautiful and heart-rending yet also poignantly understated - conveys an acutely painful sense of the silent anguish of both Frank and Lucy: his inability to articulate himself denies Lucy the possibility of understanding or closure, and her sad departure suggests yet another wounded person who will pass her pain onto others. Just as Frank's and Leon's tragedy is that they will never truly know or understand each other, so too Frank maintains the barrier between himself and Lucy.
Nonetheless, this harrowing story of isolation and failed connections is balanced by the depiction of Frank's new friend, Bob Haydon, his wife Vicky and daughter Sal. Frank's friendship with Sal in particular has brought him some comfort and hope, and our final picture of the Haydon family is a harmonious image which contrasts with Frank's own 'family train':
Frank watched the family train of the Haydons while he washed the grubs out of three small lettuces … The Haydons chattered with each other, no one's voice commanding the conversation, just a gentle murmur of the three of them.
Elizabeth O'Reilly, 2013