Deseret Morning News - Review of Crossways

'Crossways' a dark tale of insanity, sibling love By Dennis Lythgoe Deseret Morning News CROSSWAYS, by Sheila Kohler, Ontario, 241 pages, $23.95.

In a semi-autobiographical account set in the '60s, Sheila Kohler tells a chilling, dark story set in her native South Africa about inseparable sisters.

The younger sister, Kate, has returned to Johannesburg from Paris, where she is a French translator, to attend the funeral of her dear older sister, Marion, who was killed in a freakish automobile accident. The car was driven by Marion's husband, Louis, a brilliant but arrogant surgeon who is almost worshipped by his patients.


After Kate sets foot on South African soil, she is overcome by both the beauty of the country and its overwhelming cultural divisiveness. Because she loved her sister so intensely, she receives a rush of sentimental memories — but she becomes determined to discover if the death was an accident or murder.

Kate, who is unmarried but living with a French artist, is missed terribly by her companion when she stays on longer than she had planned. She is especially worried about Marion's three children, who are left without a mother, and with a father who may be deranged.

In the meantime, Louis is confined to a hospital to recuperate from the damage sustained in the crash — but he fakes a mental lapse that keeps him from the funeral and takes him away from his kids. Kohler ingeniously narrates the story in several voices, enabling the reader to get into the heads of all the principal characters.

Even genuine Zulu phrases are occasionally thrown in to good effect, to illustrate the loving, close relationship the sisters had with John, a Zulu servant they've known since childhood.

When Louis tells his story, the reader discovers that he really is mentally ill — but not from the accident. He has an obsession with Kate, who strongly resembles her sister, and so he is drawn to her romantically. On the other hand, she wisely finds him both disgusting and frightening.

As Louis' disturbing personality comes into focus, it becomes clear he is deeply involved in homosexuality, and spousal and child abuse, as well as seduction that appears like rape. From the various voices assembled in relatively short chapters, the reader learns more about the doctor than he or she may care to know.

Kohler's candid description, while detailed, is not overtly offensive, but it is very revealing about the character and the devastation he has inflicted on others. In fact, it soon becomes obvious that Louis is clearly and unrelentingly evil in his thought processes and in his actions. That evil covers the story like a gigantic, depressing blanket, leaving the reader with an unmistakable but positive moral.

Superb in building suspense, Kohler reveals things line upon line as if she were dropping pebbles for the reader along a trail — until the story speeds up at the end and rushes to a searing climax. Any reader who may be disturbed by Louis' depraved personality may want to avoid this book. But at the same time, the novel is marvelously written, the characters wonderfully drawn and the plot expertly developed.

In fact, it is written with such elegance and care that it is compelling — so much so that the stereotypical phrase "you can't put it down" genuinely applies.


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