Published by Odyssey Books, 2017.
In her latest collection, Artefacts and Other Stories, Rebecca Burns presents seventeen short stories that span from the late Victorian age to present day, with most of the stories taking place during or immediately after the two world wars. While the stories are not linked by time period or even location, each story deals with loss, sometimes the loss of a loved one and sometimes the loss of a way of life. Family secrets are another common thread, woven through several of the tales.
A few of the stories are brief sketches. The Last Game, August 1914 is a glimpse into the final cricket match of a season. It is bittersweet because the families attending know the teenaged players are on the verge of enlisting in the first world war. In Spark, a woman finds a sequin in her bathtub and ponders the possibility that her husband may be having an affair. Other stories are longer, such as Dandelion and A Gathering of Relics, with intricate layers and rich backstories.
The title story, Artefacts, is a wonderful representative of the collection. Like many of the others, it is a war story, but unlike the other tales, it has a supernatural element. Leah is an employee of the registry office in World War II London. As she processes birth, marriage, and death certificates, she gets glimpses into other people’s lives and emotions when she either touches them or touches something of theirs. Given her constant sensory overload, Leah keeps to herself rather than becoming friendly with her lighthearted female coworkers. She steps out of her comfort zone when Patrick asks her on a date, experiencing love in the time of the Blitz.
My favorite of the collection was Defibrillate. It is one of the few stories set during a more recent time, and it tells of Cora, a brilliant but cold surgeon, who flees her life in London to visit her hometown after a high profile patient dies in surgery. In the seaside town, she forms an unlikely friendship with Tate, an older man who has lost everyone he loves, and through act of selflessness on Tate’s part, Cora experiences a moment of unexpected grace.
Artefacts and Other Stories is a beautifully written collection, allowing the reader to visit England, France, and the United States throughout the decades. With each journey, the reader is in the care of a skillful writer, who brings complex characters to life. Burns is careful to leave room for ambiguity, ensuring that each story leaves the reader wanting more.
Stacy Wennstrom is a nonfiction editor at Halfway Down the Stairs.
© 2018, Stacy Wennstrom