The Historical Novel Review – Love Child

After her lawyer advises Bill to write her will, the beautiful, wealthy widow sets out to examine her life and the people around her to determine on whom to bequeath the wealth she has inherited from her husband. Besides her unusual – and distracting – nickname, Bill has made several unconventional choices in her past, choices that have made her an outcast in the pre-apartheid South African society of 1950s Johannesburg. Bill’s analysis is unflinching. Her two young sons are strangers, “milquetoasts,” rich boys with ideas that scare her. They are closer to their servants than to their mother. Bill’s own siblings are rapacious and self-serving. The scrutiny takes Bill to the 1920s and to her first love, Isaac, a young Jew, and to the 1930s, as Bill, living in crowded quarters with her family, takes a job as a nurse aid in a luxurious mansion.

A mystery hovers throughout the book. What happened to the child Bill had? What happened to Isaac? With a spare, beautiful prose full of unexpected turns of phrase and psychological acumen, step by heartbreaking step, Sheila Kohler discloses the transformation of a love-struck young girl “with so much hope, so many expectations” into a latter-day, middle-aged South African Scarlett O’Hara whose aspirations to leave poverty behind and to help her family exact a tremendous prize from her. A beautifully written novel with an unforgettable protagonist.