" The afternoon sun was locked in a smoke
haze, charred wattle trees stood like stick men Tears pricked her eyes.
She wiped a hand over her cheek, saw grime on her palm and rubbed it
clean on her jeans. Two fists of paper were already on the floor as she
again took up her pen."
Reviewed by Elizabeth Rutherford-Johnson
Sylvia Petter brings a powerful sense of place to every story. This is
combined with a precise examination of fragmented lives and the
fragmented people living them.
The title story
is set in the still space of an airplane arcing between two worlds
– the narrator’s native Australia, where she has
just buried her mother’s husband, and England, where await
her own family and a potentially adulterous relationship. The structure
allows the narrator to trace patterns between herself and her mother
until she finds release in a decision not to pursue her deliciously
tempting friendship, but to see it as a back burning, a
“fire… lit to quell bigger
of the 28 very short stories stand alone, many are grouped by theme.
Sometimes this works well - a set of stories about infidelity worked
like a series of sketches of the same view, each one bringing more
understanding and richness to the subject. However, a run dealing with
European heritage and the taint of involvement with the Nazi regime
worked less successfully: the subject matter seemed
overstretched. All the stories were well-crafted, but taken
together it felt as if the author was using each one to examine an idea
from a different angle without finding anything new to say.
There was an
offputting didacticism to a couple of stories. In The Tschusch a
thoroughly unpleasant main character illustrated the worst of racial
intolerance in 1990s Vienna. Yet despite strong plotting, the
denouement – where the injured MC is helped by a Croatian
doctor, just the kind of (former) immigrant he despises –
felt like an O Henry twist: it was there to affect the reader but had
no impact on the character. Similarly, Viennese Blood
presented a snapshot of the anti-Semitism of 1930s Austria but took
this reader nowhere. The coy unwillingness to give dates made it feel
as if this was another reveal – are we in pre-war Vienna or
the present day? Oh look, it’s a Nazi salute. To my mind,
sacrificing story and character for intensity of purpose –
even for a worthy cause – makes for a less satisfying read.
In these two stories, there was no ambiguity, nothing to decide,
nowhere for the reader to go.
two, perhaps undone by a seriousness of intent, were the
Wisps luxuriated in the unstudied strangeness of Jason
“spun from the strands of my true love’s
charted a moving journey about a mother's love for her prematurely born
son; my personal favourite, Mimosa, was a
harrowing account of a bush fire and a mother’s death, as the
main character writes to a man who may or may not be her
I found Back Burning an
imperfect collection with some outstanding stories. But what stayed me
with me was the journey – from the tangled loyalties of old
world Europe to the bush fires of new world Australia, it's an
impressive range for a slim book.
Rutherford-Johnson started writing shorts as an excuse not to
redraft The Novel and now can't kick the habit. Born in Dublin, she
lives in London where she works as a writer and editor. Her short
fiction has appeared in Mslexia, LITRO, The New Writer and
www.pulp.net. The Novel is coming along nicely despite the lure of more
Awards: Winner, IP Picks 2007, Best Fiction
bio: Sylvia Petter
was born in Vienna and grew up in Australia – she now lives back
in Vienna with her Austrian husband. After working in Geneva for over
25 years, she started writing fiction in 1993. Her first collection of
stories, The Past Present, was published in 2001.
with Sylvia Petter
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