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Back Burning

Sylvia Petter

" 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

In Back Burning 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 flames.” 

While several 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. 

However, these two, perhaps undone by a seriousness of intent, were the exception. Mind Wisps luxuriated in the unstudied strangeness of Jason “spun from the strands of my true love’s mind”; Matthew 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 father. 

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.

Elizabeth 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 concise forms.


PublisherInteractive Press

Publication Date:2007

Paperback/Hardback? Paperback

First collection? No

Awards: Winner, IP Picks 2007, Best Fiction

Author 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.

Read an interview with Sylvia Petter

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