Author: Sylvia Petter
Table of Contents
Back Burning 3
Th e Black Hole 16
Th e Colour Of Haze 20
Th e Past Present 26
Viennese Blood 30
Th e Tschusch 37
Th e Ferris Wheel 43
Grow Up 49
Friends And Lovers 52
Bobbin Head 58
Love In San Francisco 60
Talking Cold Turkey 68
Apple Of Paradise 73
Just Lunch 77
Rites Of Passion 80
Th e Caravan 90
Th e Boy From Bul 94
Mind Wisps 99
No Man’s Land 103
Blind Date 105
Eyes To See 110
Closer Th an Comfort 115
Western Rerun 130
Sylvia Petter’s collection flings the reader across the globe in its bold exploration of love, death, passion,
relationship, and family. Echoing her own life experience, Sylvia Petter’s award-winning stories explore
universal themes through lenses of distance and separation. Back Burning spans continents, zooming in
on snapshots of relationships from childhood and young love, through adulthood and career, political
pursuits and history, to awakening in old age. Powerful stories of loss and rejuvenation emerge from this
patchwork in unexpected ways. ‘I want to tell them about timing, how a new fire can burn once an old one
has died. I also want to tell them about back burning and fires that are lit to quell bigger flames.’
I’m on a fl ight from Sydney to London and beneath me a haze
veils the Opera House. I’ve just buried Ralph, my mother’s
I move to the vacant seat by the window and think of my
husband and daughters in England. I think of another man in
my life, of the two men my mother loved.
I’d gone to Sydney for my stepfather’s funeral, my head
fi lled with visions of brush fi res and burning. The outside of the
white bungalow, the house I’d grown up in, had still been the
same, just the paint on the guttering had started to peel.
My mother and I were in the lounge and she was swaying
gently on the settee. ‘He was my big love,’ she said. My tears
were brimming as I sat down beside her. ‘But your father was a
good man, too,’ she said.
Although he’d been dead ten years, there were still reminders
of my father—like the frame on the table in the corner. He had
fashioned it from tin to hold the now faded photo of my mother
at twenty-fi ve. In it her hair was dark and pulled back with just
some tendrils at the white collar of her blouse.
I felt her gaze follow mine to the frame on the table. ‘Why
didn’t you leave Dad?’ I said dully. ‘If you loved Ralph so?’
‘There was you.’
‘Then why didn’t you let Ralph go?’
She sighed. ‘You know what happens when the brush fi res
come. You can’t escape them when the wind hits and the bush
starts to burn.’
I moved closer to her, hoping the nearness of my body could
replace the arms that no longer could hug her. She stroked my
cheek with the back of her hand and passed me a tissue. Then
she rubbed her gnarled fi ngers as if trying to straighten them.
‘It’s good he went fi rst,’ she said.
‘Do you mean Dad?’
‘Yes. But, perhaps I mean both.’
Sylvia Petter was born in Vienna and grew up in Australia. She has been featured at
conferences of the Society for the Study of the Short Story in English in New Orleans
(2002), and Alcala de Henares, Spain (2004), and her work has been published widely both
online and in print. Her first collection of stories, The Past Present, was published by IUMIX
Ltd, UK, in 2001. Sylvia currently lives with her Austrian husband in Vienna whilst
undertaking postgraduate studies in Creative Writing at the University of NSW.
Sylvia Petter is a cartographer of dislocated lives. With compassionate precision, she charts the detours,
the disruptive incursions of passion, loneliness and loss, the ever-shifting conceptions of home and of the
self. Her characters are always on the move through complicated terrain, and the journey is richly
rewarding for the reader.
In simple, direct and compelling language, the stories reward the reader with a variety of distinct and
memorable experiences: from the complexities of love (and unfaithfulness) to those of history and the way
it treats, mistreats and selects its victims, building its ironies on the accidents of race, nationality,
personality, place and parentage. With its broad geographical span and array of venues, this book would
make a fine companion for a journey. Not only does it entertain; it makes you think, it makes you feel, it
makes you appreciate the humanity of its many characters.
Sylvia Petter’s second collection is storytelling at its best. Each story presents a mini-world complete in
itself—with real-to-life characters, heart-aching situations, and “visions of wings”. Petter takes the reader
for a fast moving, eclectic tour around Europe, and back and forth to Australia. Crossing cultures with
every page, and shifting between generations, Petter slowly builds a world of human goodness and trust
in the midst of shadows. The reader is won over by Petter’s sharp wit, polished craft and honesty. Bravo
for this tour de force.
Sylvia Petter is certainly one of the raciest and moving writers I have read. These stories are strong and
compelling. They vividly portray characters which, when fleshed out are real and devoid of superfluous
descriptions. There is a lovely rumbling inevitability of some of these stories, like a raging river running to
the sea. Petter had the benefit of working with Alex Keegan in the UK on his 'boot camp'- writers' course
of criticism and self-criticism. What better man to work with and this work of Petter's shows it. It is all
very entertaining, as well. 'The Colour of Haze' about the Nazis is especially pungent. Every kid knew
there was a row back then but didn't know what it was about. The past can be disturbing for children, too.
These are themes that needed to be re-expressed and Petter knows just how to do this to reach a wide
audience. The writing is stark and clear. This is a very passionate book. But so aimed and direct. So
Hitler spoilt a whole generation, but they still have the memory and never forget. You will have to get this
book, if you can - the internet will get it for you.
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.
In a time when published short story collections are increasingly few and far between, and many of those
that do appear seem to be story cycles trying to become novels, Sylvia Petter’s collection of 28 stories is
a refreshing testimony to the durability and worth of the short story genre. Like the shortest stories in
Joyce’s Dubliners — in whose tradition Sylvia Petter writes — they quickly sketch a character who
relates a story that unfolds to an epiphany — sometimes life-changing, sometimes ending at an abyss.
Petter’s background of European parents and adult life framing her growing up in Australia and feeling a
deep affinity there forms the matrix of dislocation from which many of her characters suffer. They are often
travelers, or expatriates from one place or another, single parents, single adults, lonely children trying to
make connections with others. At the core they are quests for an emotional “home” with another person.
One story, “Closer than Comfort,” about an Asperger-syndrome child, could almost stand as an emblem
for all: she is bright, her father disappeared when she was very young, and her mother’s good intentions
are of no use to her. Almost magically, her fascination with computers, which enable her to work and to
communicate from a safe distance, leads her to something the reader hopes will be love: an internet
friend decides to come from Scotland to Australia to meet her, and, on the brink of flight, she chooses
instead to stay and meet him.
Besides the difficulties in romantic relationships and families, some of the stories have political themes:
the aftermath of Naziism or its revival, prejudice in Austria or Germany against eastern European
immigrants. One of these stories, “The Tschusch,” ends with a terrorist bombing that cuts short an
Austrian bigot’s self-congratulatory vacation in Dubrovnik, where he has expected to exploit the very
people he denigrates at home.
Because they are so short, the stories trade on symbols and turns of phrase. The title story, “Back
Burning,” refers to the strategy of setting a fire to stop a fire—a frequent occurrence in the tinder-box part
of Australia in which Sylvia Petter grew up. In that story, the “back burning” is not literal, but springs from
an encounter a woman has while returning from her stepfather’s funeral in Australia. He was the man her
mother had left her father for; she herself may be on the verge of leaving her family for another man. But
on the plane she is forced to converse with an Indian woman returning to part of her family in England: as
she listens, something changes for her. She will not let the conflagration break out, as her mother did.
She will go home to her husband.
Literal as well as figurative “back burning” occurs in one of the later stories, and one of the longest in the
volume, “Mimosa,” a horrific tale in which a female Australian wildfire fighter finds her mother terribly
burned on the floor of their devastated home when she returns from a shift of backburning. The mother
survives in hospital long enough to convey to her daughter that there is a Frenchman who should be
notified of her death. After trying various emotional ways of telling the story in a letter, the daughter
settles for a brief, noncommittal announcement, but puts even that into her pocket in the end.
In the same way as short early modernist stories appeared in weekly journals or other ephemeral media
(think of Joyce, Kipling, Saki), these stories play to readers in the midst of other activities, or listeners
who must “get it” in one brief...