Sylvia Petter’s All the Beautiful Liars Details the Hunt for Answers in Postwar Vienna

Memories, reflects Sylvia Petter in All the Beautiful Liars, “can haunt your dreams and become stories that ghosts tell. Some bits disappear and you end up looking for them for the rest of your life.” For Katrina Klain, there are also mysteries: There is that which was said, but more pressingly, as she travels around Europe, picking up the pieces of her life, that which was left unsaid. All the Beautiful Liars is a novel of questions in search of answers.

Born in Vienna, raised in Australia, and now based in Vienna once more after 25 years in Geneva, Petter’s transcontinental back-and-forth is the solid terrain of her work. She began writing fiction in 1993 and has authored the short story collections Back Burning and The Past Present. Having completed her PhD in creative writing in 2009, All the Beautiful Liars is Petter’s debut novel and was nominated for the British Yeovil Literary Prize.

The novel’s protagonist, Katrina, was born in Australia. Her German mother, Bettina, married Katrina’s father, Alfred, in 1942 before he was shipped off to the Russian front. Released from prison following a war crimes trial, Alfred and Bettina moved to Vienna in 1947, where Katrina was born, before continuing on to Australia in 1949. Made aware of her difference as an Austrian – presumed a “Nazi” by her classmates – in postwar Australia, Katrina is drawn to Vienna by the things that were never discussed. Why the hostility from Bettina’s mother-in-law? What happened to Alfred’s brother, whom he regards as dead? And to Bettina’s family, stuck on the eastern side of Germany’s internal border?

Memoirs and Dreams

Intriguing questions all, although the device Petter uses to tell her story is her novel’s major shortcoming – unnecessarily convoluted and tiresome to explain: On a flight from Vienna back to Australia, Katrina falls into a deep sleep, in which this novel, her “fictional memoir,” is conceived. The narrative emerges in the form of a torturous inquisition led by the arch, unpleasant Jaimie Stadler, the so-called “keeper of lost endings,” that takes place in a dream in which Katrina has died – “slit throat” reads her medical records. Jaimie draws the memories out of Katrina. “You cannot forget the unknown,” she says, “but you can remember what you have forgotten.”

It is an inapproachable, gratuitous superstructure – including a grating number of references to clicks and cuts to emphasize a dream’s cinematic qualities – and an unfortunate impediment to an otherwise agreeable novel. Save for Jaimie, whose tone is too clever by half (readers unfamiliar with the concept of the “panopticon” may wish to have a dictionary to hand), Petter’s polyphonic novel is filled with a plethora of engaging voices, some of whose unreliability serve to foster an appropriate sense of confusion and unpredictability. She is especially adept at conveying Katrina’s naïve, almost virginal interactions with the Vienna of the late 1960s and highlighting some of its less-than-splendid architectural and culinary details (though the constant misspelling of Kärntner Straße is inexplicable).

“You cannot brush off the past,” Petter writes in one of many allusions to the novel’s core theme. “It will always come back in some way. You will have to deal with it, or it will haunt you forever.” All the Beautiful Liars deals with issues of historical memory, of criminality and complicity, and of silence—the idea that, as Jaimie, things will always seep out in the end, given enough time. But that confrontation with the past is also a vehicle for something else, for it is in dealing with the past that Petter sets Katrina on a path toward self-discovery.

(C) Wikimedia Commons

Sylvia Petter

All the Beautiful Liars

Lightning Books 2021

pp 288


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