The incident tells us much about what gets overheard outside the parental bedroom in the house on R. Street. More to the point is what it says about the dominant sister, a schoolgirl called Bill who's a complicated Lolita-like mixture of innocence and corruption. Bill performs sexual services for men in obscure parts of public parks and accepts in return not cash but items of value -- a gold cigarette case, a diamond ring. In this she resembles her father. She displays the greed for gems and precious metals he shares with the rest of the exploitative white culture.
The political realities of South Africa in the post-Boer War period are ever present in the novel and are deftly woven into its fabric, but the central theme is psychological. The focus is on the perverse warps in Bill, the question of how she came by them and, more urgent, where they will take her: for an aura of impending horror seems to cling to Bill, a feeling that this unsettling, sad creature is heading for some terrible final disaster, perhaps at the hands of a stranger in a park.
Or in a cinema. The movie playing in town is "The Sheik," and Bill goes again and again, obsessed with Rudolph Valentino, fast horses and white sand, until the world of the film and of the cool, dark cinema comes to dominate her mind. She drifts about with her head full of romance and her sexual antennae tuned to the lusts of men. As those antennae become increasingly unreliable, so does Bill's grip on reality grow dangerously tenuous.
The form of the book is supremely well adapted to an investigation of the complicated, fragile nature of this girl. Ms. Kohler, the author of "The Perfect Place," a novel, and "Miracles in America," a collection of short fiction, builds her narrative with a series of short, present-tense glimpses of life in R. Street and the city beyond.
These vignettes, partial and suggestive, are arranged in a seemingly haphazard manner, neither time nor logic determining their sequence, with the result that all the novel's effects, its mood, narrative and characters, emerge entirely as a function of the reader's piecing together of disjointed and oblique fragments. The story as it unfolds in this way, teased out of obscurity, is all the weirder for demanding the reader's active complicity.
Atmosphere is everything here, not only the oppressive psychic climate but also the quality of African heat, light and vegetation that lends a torrid, sultry haze to the visual world. One feels a sense of languor in these pages, also a ripeness, a fecundity, a sort of decadence that finds its echo in Bill, who walks the hot streets of the city in her school uniform, constantly followed by men to whom, in shadowy places, and for a price, she will show herself. She will also sit on their laps, even handle their "life": "While he dies in her hands, she sees the sun fall below the horizon, bleeding across the sky."
What is it that drives her out into the streets and the parks and the cinema? Mother. Father. Uncle Charles. The nurse. Bill's mother spends almost the entire novel in the sickroom. Her profound fatigue, her moaning in the night and her husband's philandering are all darkly linked to Bill's increasingly promiscuous behavior. A nurse is hired to look after the mother, and this woman has the effect of intensifying the already complicated sexual energies furtively at work in the house on R. Street, or at least in Bill's sickly imagination. Nothing is stated directly and unambiguously, however; we are left to work out for ourselves what it means when, for example, hot water is found running on a large cucumber in the sink in the nurse's bathroom.
No less sinister is the doctor, who visits Bill's mother only when her father has left the house. He is a fat man with glowing cheeks, and we are alerted to his probable lechery by the way he takes his "plump" fountain pen from the silk pocket on the inside of his morning coat. Uncle Charles, shellshocked in the Boer War and confined to "the half-dark of the back bedroom," is another member of the household with apparently unwholesome tendencies. He gives Bill chocolates and tells her stories, and as he does so "his hand strays."
The ending of the novel, not surprisingly, neglects to deliver a clean, clear sense of closure. Some sort of resolution occurs, but its precise meaning will depend to a large extent on the reader's construction. This is fiction that shimmers like the tram that comes down R. Street: "The tram hangs suspended in the middle distance, caught in the white light, a caravan of the desert. It hangs there, shimmering. Then it plunges on, drawing closer until she can hear the sound of it, the yaw and the clatter of the tram."
Sheila Kohler has achieved in this short novel a remarkable atmosphere, a fine, delicate fusion of period, society and climate, and breathed into it a family of figures obscured by the glare of that atmosphere; then singled out from that family a girl who expresses the skewed tensions of its dynamic. To her she has given this strange story of a sexual ripening touched with rot.
Patrick McGrath is the author most recently of the novel "Dr. Haggard's Disease."
Published: 05 - 22 - 1994 , Late Edition - Final , Section 7 , Column 3 , Page 18