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. Except for a few, these are not simple vignettes or snappy “short-shorts,” but they are unusually compact. A very few exceed 2000 words, and none is over 3000, I think. 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.
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.
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 acknowledgments for the volume reveal that some of the stories have appeared not only in print but in online and broadcast media. I do not think the medium is irrelevant to the form and brevity of the stories. 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 “sitting.” These lucid glimpses into lives on the brink point both to the future of the short story and its history.
Causes Sylvia Petter Supports
International PEN (Sydney)
Indigenous Literacy Project (Australia)