A dozen stories by South African-born Kohler (Children of Pithiviers, 2001, etc.), set in a variety of locales from Europe to America to South Africa. The characters here tend to be fragile, exquisite, mournful, and vaguely haunted. They are rarely what anyone would call happy, lucky or blessed, and they usually appear most satisfied with themselves when they’ve inflicted some tremendous pain on a close relative or friend. In “Casualty,” for example, an upper-class Frenchwoman avenges herself on her adulterous husband by taking a lover of her own-with near-tragic consequences for her child.
“Underworld,” set in a posh South African boarding school, portrays a young girl trapped by the hypocrisy of the institution, where she is kept at school over the holidays as a punishment for some petty misbehavior-only to be molested by one of the teachers.
The two older, aristocratic ladies of “Death in Rome,” who meet after many years apart for a reunion of their friendship, turn out to be well-bred vipers intent on vengeance for unforgiven slights from years gone by-just as the polite South African doctor in “Baboons” confesses one of his indiscretions to his wife out of sheer cruelty rather than guilt or remorse. It’s not a very nice crowd to run with: These are the sorts of people who plot adultery on the night before they get married (“Paris at Night”), hire prostitutes to manipulate their children (“Lunch With Mother”), and send out coy letters to potential lovers (“Rain Check”) the way most people send out résumés. They make amusing company, provided you don’t have to know them in real life. Razor-sharp and as caustic as acid, Kohler’s portraits of the vanity of human wishes could strip the paint off a barn.