Kohler, a South African-born writer now living in New York, is represented this fall by not one but two publications: a brief, crackling novel and a story collection chosen by William Gass as winner of the 1998 Willa Cather Fiction Prize.
Both works are told in language at once exacting and lyrical–as blazingly beautiful as South Africa must be–and both offer heroines (so to speak) who are richly complex: victim and bully, acted up and acting at the same time. The novel, Cracks, opens with the reunion of a group of middle-aged women at an undistinguished boarding school deep in South Africa. Their thoughts are with one classmate no longer with them.
Fiamma was definitely an outsider, a girl from an aristocratic Italian family who from the moment she arrived was the focus of ridicule and envy–and fear, too, as she became the favorite of the demanding swimming coach. It’s clear from page one that something dreadful has happened to Fiamma, something these women are implicated in, and with certain foreboding the novel teases out the solution to its mystery.
A section of Cracks appears in One Girl, a series of stories moving from a young girl’s letting herself get picked up in a movie cinema, to two daughters on a walk with their heedless father, to a young woman visiting her deceased fianc ‘s mother, to a bride in a marriage arranged to cover her pregnancy, to a wife shocked to discover her husband in another man’s embrace and thereafter subject to his abuse. The pieces all have different protagonists, but collectively they tranverse life from a woman’s perspective, taking us from childhood to adolescence to courtship and marriage to death–as the book’s four parts are called. Like the novel, these stories are told glancingly, without the burden of too many facts, allowing the complexity and occasional harshness of human interaction to come through.
Kohler is not explicitly political in her writing, yet implicitly, by capturing the power plays that define human relationships, she suggests the brutality of regimes like apartheid South Africa. Both books are highly recommended.–Barbara Hoffert, “Library Journal” Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information