After the Fire, a Brilliant Debut Novel

Evie Wyld“There’s some of us, yourself included I’m sure, have seen and borne witness to a number of terrible things. And as you’ll know, those things haunt a man.”

— Klyde in After the Fire, a Still Small Voice by Evie Wyld

Evie Wyld is the award-winning author of All the Birds, Singing, published by Pantheon earlier this month. Ahead of her appearance at next week’s Seriously Entertaining show, we returned to the past and her harsh, mysterious, brilliant first novel, After the Fire, a Still Small Voice (Pantheon, 2009). Mild spoilers lie herein.

The novel’s title refers to a divine misunderstanding in 1 Kings. The prophet Elijah is camping out on Mount Horeb, where Moses received the Ten Commandments. He complains to God that he’s the last of the faithful. God suggests he go outside onto the mountain, where he stages a meteorological spectacular for Elijah: strong wind; an earthquake; “after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice”. And the voice says to him, “What doest thou here, Elijah?” The prophet repeats his gripe, betraying how little he has learned from this moment of revelation.

It’s an appropriate touchstone, for Wyld’s tale is also one in which signs go unheeded, weather has a divine flavour about it, and despair is best served violent. In it, she follows two characters whose relation only becomes clear about halfway through. In alternating chapters we see (present-day) Frank, who returns to the shack he grew up in with his parents to recover from a disastrous break-up, and Leon, a talented baker forced to follow in his father’s footsteps when he is conscripted to fight in Vietnam. The setting is the east coast of Australia, a snake- and spider-ridden wilderness where even a child knows how to make a fire, how to hold a crocodile, how to spell SOS with flags, who Ned Kelly was and how to kill a chook.

After the Fire, a Still Small VoiceFrank finds his homecoming at once strange and familiar. “He remembered the place feeling more tropical, the soil thicker and wetter”; “the clearing was smaller than he remembered”; “it was darker and smaller than he remembered”; and yet “inside it hadn’t changed, and it made his chest tight to see”. This uncanniness, along with the strange sensation that the shack had been waiting for him, confers an expectant air of reckoning on the setting. Frank can’t bear to see the beds where he and his parents once slept, nor the wedding-cake figurines of his forebears, and sets about doing over the past as he works through his misery at losing Lucy. “The bloody feel of some bastard terrible thing swimming inside him” is one that won’t let up either for Frank or the reader. He soon gets a job dealing in freight and makes friends with neighbours Bob and Vicky, as well as Sal, their hot-headed daughter who turns up one day and suggests he employ her to work on his “farm”. Memories of Lucy haunt him while in the background the news of missing local girl Joyce Mackelly develops in poignant counterpoint.

In our parallel narrative, Leon’s father goes to fight in Korea. When he returns from the war he is a shadow, no longer capable of producing the beautiful cakes that made his immigrant family’s name in Australia. The bakery is left in Leon’s care, and he tends to it faithfully until the day of his conscription into another war. In Vietnam, his experiences are told, in a vein of dark humour, through cooking similes and metaphors: “the heat glazed him”; “inside [the jungle] their skin glowed white like they’d been rolled in caster sugar”; “mud coated his trousers hotly and stuck like burnt chocolate to his boots”. He learns to kill. In Saigon he buys a Zippo with the words “After the Earthquake, a Fire” inscribed on it. When he returns, he too is changed, unable to relate in quite the same way to the people he loves.

Wyld, who works (and writes) in a book shop in London, spent much of her childhood in Australia, and her familiarity with its other-worldly flora and fauna is a great asset. One particularly breathless sequence with a shark stands out; but there are countless creepy-crawlies throughout, and near-ubiquitous chickens. Wyld’s prose has a terse beauty, a leanness that often approaches poetry. Her imagery is exquisite, especially when it comes to the depiction of male emotion. Leon watches on as “the tears ran out of his father like a squeezed lemon”; we later see “the grotesque smile that was a man crying”. (She’s equally adept in a comic register, incidentally — I particularly loved Frank carrying his stove “like a man slow-dancing with an orang-utan”.)

After the Fire, a Still Small Voice is a spare epic. Of fathers and sons but, even more, of intergenerational failures of understanding. Its compactness gives it heft, its colloquial ease the clear peal of authenticity. Want to hear more? Here’s Evie Wyld in an interview with Granta Magazine, which last year named her one of their twenty Best Young British Novelists (a distinction previously conferred on Zadie Smith, Martin Amis, Alan Hollinghurst and Jeanette Winterson).

You can buy After the Fire, a Still Small Voice at McNally Jackson here. Evie Wyld is a guest at our next Seriously Entertaining show, “In Case of Emergency”, on April 28. Buy tickets here and follow Wyld on Twitter here!

Plundered Hearts: The Poetry of J.D. McClatchy

JDHonouring J.D. McClatchy in 1991, the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters stated, “It may be that no more eloquent poet will emerge in his American generation.” Since then, his reputation has grown as exponentially as his output. A poet, essayist, librettist — and Professor of English at Yale — McClatchy is certainly one of the hardest-working poets in America. Knopf has kindly published a new collection of his work, Plundered Hearts: New and Selected Poems, providing readers with a perfect introduction to his world.

One of the new poems, “Prelude, Delay, and Epitaph”, is as good a way in as any:

A finger is cut from a rubber glove
And cinched as a tourniquet around my toe.
The gouging ingrown nail is to be removed.
The shots supposed to have pricked and burned
The nerves diabetes has numbed never notice.
The toe, as I watch, slowly turns a bluish
Gray, the color of flesh on a slab, the size
Of a fetus floating on the toilet’s Styx,
But lumpen, the blunt hull of a tug slowly
Nosing the huge, clumsy vessel into port.

McClatchy continues; this is just the “prelude”. But there is much even in this fragment that is typical of his precise and visceral style. First, subject matter. Many of the new poems in Plundered Hearts — “Kiss Kiss”, “My Robotic Prostatectomy”, “His Own Life” — and a fair chunk of the old (“Cancer”, “My Mammogram”) are carnal, bloody, clinical. Also, form. McClatchy is a surgeon-poet, versifying with a scalpel. He often marries traditional poetic forms with taboo or unpleasant subjects. (“Cancer”, for instance, comprises three sonnets.) “An elegant, elaborated format helps tame the taboo,” he told The Paris Review in 2002, “and a stark subject — feces, say, or cancer, or the penis — charges the poem’s formal energies with an unexpected drive.”

Here, the precise syntax of the first half of the stanza gives way to enjambment, the sticky consonants of “toilet’s Styx”, and the dull slow rhythm of “lumpen”, “blunt”, “hull”, “tug” in the second. The enjambed “bluish / Gray” mimics the changing colour of the afflicted toe just as the bulging lines (mostly eleven syllables after line 1’s neat ten) hint at the matter that should be excised. It’s as if the “gouging ingrown nail” is lodged in the poem itself. These subtler effects, combined with the rather gruesome imagery — “flesh on a slab”, “a fetus floating” — have a powerfully nauseating effect.


This poem is the latest in a long line of carnal efforts. As he told The Paris Review, McClatchy is fascinated by the body:

In a sense, I’ve merely come to agree with George Seferis who once said that the poet has only one subject: his own living body. It is the body where we learn our first lessons in pain and pleasure, and our later lessons in betrayal and decay.

“My Mammogram”, from the 1998 collection Ten Commandments, is one of the strongest expressions of this betrayal. In it, when the narrator discovers that something might be wrong with the “too tender skin” of his breasts, his body is transformed by affect, as are his surroundings: “The nurse has an executioner’s gentle eyes”; “The room gets lethal”. DNA, which contains the secret code of life, also hides the clues to mortality, and despite his classical leanings, for McClatchy the question of fate is not one of divinities but of genes: “the future each of us blankly awaits / Was long ago written on the genetic wall”. The body’s betrayal is in becoming what it was always going to: grotesque, a crucible of pain. In the final stanza:

So suppose the breasts fill out until I look
Like my own mother … ready to nurse a son,
A version of myself, the infant understood
In the end as the way my own death had come.

Or will I in a decade be back here again,
The diagnosis this time not freakish but fatal?
The changes in one’s later years all tend,
Until the last one, toward the farcical,

Each of us slowly turned into something that hurts,
Someone we no longer recognize.
If soul is the final shape I shall assume,

The shadow brightening against the fluorescent gloom,
An absence as clumsily slipped into as this shirt,
Then which of my bodies will have been the best disguise?

How can the body, mutable as it is, truly be the temple of the soul?

McClatchy’s work is rich and dense and muscular and repays close reading. But that’s not to say it’s not also fun, animated by a humour as rigorous as its flipside solemnity. In Plundered Hearts you’ll find poems about Renoir’s La Règle du Jeu (“An Essay on Friendship”), “Auden’s OED” (as it sounds), and bees (“Bees”). Take the dark humour of this passage from “Lingering Doubts”:

The woman giving birth
Was standing near a bed,
The child apparently worth
The risk that lay ahead.
“Don’t be stubborn. Here,
Lie down,” he crossly said.
She winced and shook her head.
“Spoken just like a man.
Lie down? A bed? That’s where
The trouble first began.”

Indeed, in one of his other careers — as a librettist — McClatchy is well known for his witty English-language librettos to some of Mozart’s airiest, most delicious operas, collected in Seven Mozart Librettos.

For further reading, The Paris Review‘s fascinating 2002 interview with McClatchy can be found in full here.

J.D. McClatchy, who has also edited The Yale Review for more than twenty years, joins the House of SpeakEasy on April 28 for “In Case of Emergency”. You can buy tickets here.