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The Burnt Ones by Patrick White

The Burnt Ones

by Patrick White

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Eleven short stories of varying length by this Nobel prize winning Author, in which he demonstrates his skill to write in a variety of voices. There are stories of Anatolian Greeks living in Europe and Africa following their expulsion from Smyrna; who are now businessmen, intellectuals and some who have made good in America and returned to Greece. There are the voices from the various strata of Australian society; stories of poor country folk, stories of life in the Sydney suburbs, the upwardly mobile and finally tales of the rich and super rich, wherever White pitches his stories he makes his characters reach out to us as they wrestle with their lives, their difficulties, their relationships.

For these stories White delves back to his own experiences to provide us with a seemingly authentic background for his tales of fidelity, love and sacrifice. His lifetime partner was Manoloy Lascaris who spent his childhood in the Greek community in Alexandria and witnessed the diaspora from Smyrna, which features strongly in three of the stories. The two men thought of setting up home in Greece but eventually settled in White’s native Australia. White himself came from an agricultural background and struggled to make a living from the land. His family were relatively rich and his mother in particular was a socialite, he was therefore familiar with both rich and poor Australians. It is also probably true to say that White struggled with relationships and would have been able to identify with many of the central characters in these stories, whose individualism places them a little apart from the characters around them.

The stories are of varying lengths and the collection gets off to a great start with “Dead Roses”, which at 65 pages is the longest. Anthea is a typical White character, we meet her as a young woman, heavily built, who is invited to stay on a small partly uninhabited island by some rich friends. She meets one of her fellow guests on the seashore but his attempt to make love to her shocks her sensibilities and she flees from the island back home to her mother. She then marries a much older rich businessman who turns out to be a skinflint. Anthea remains a dutiful wife until his death, but finds herself unexpectedly plunged back to that moment on the island when she bumps into the man who made her feel “Like an Animal” This strong story with it’s themes of unfulfilled sexuality, sacrifice, fidelity and unlikely partnerships sets the scene for many of the tales that follow.

I particularly enjoyed the Greek stories; A Glass of Tea” has a subtle twist, “The Evening at Sissy Kamara’s” is portent with the exodus from Smyrna and “The woman who was not Allowed to Keep Cats” has much to say about Greeks returning to their native land and the love that keeps an unlikely couple together. There are also some fine Australian stories; “Miss Slattery and her Demon Lover” has a woman turning the tables on a macho man to delightful effect and “Being Kind to Titina” shows that duty and kindness can have its rewards. There is humour aplenty in “Willy-wagtails by Moonlight”is where White is at his bitchy best and the final story “Down at the Dump” has an earthiness that is reminiscent of Emile Zola.

This is a fine collection of short stories, which left me wanting more. The writing throughout is from the top drawer and if the experimental thought projection of “Clay” does not quite work then at only 21 pages we can forgive White for this. As usual White has fun with his names: The old skinflint of the first story is Mr Mortlock, The woman who tames the demon lover is Miss Slattery and the birds that inadvertently reveal an adultery are Willy-wagtails. I would recommend these stories for people who are hesitant about plunging into one of White’s longer novels as they provide a taste of his style of writing and the themes running through them are typical White themes. They may lack the power that he can generate in a longer piece of fiction, but lovers of his novels should enjoy these short stories. ( )
3 vote baswood | Dec 5, 2012 |
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For Nin and Geoffrey Dutton
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Dead Roses

Val Tulloch liked to look at her husband while he was reading.
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