by Sheila Kohler (Zoland Books, 1999)
Reviewed by Steve
Sheila Kohler's novel “Cracks” is essentially a retelling of Golding's “Lord of the Flies,” with sex and jealousy, rather than wilderness survival, serving as the catalysts for tragedy. Though Kohler's tack is considerably different (girls safely attending a South African boarding school), she too sees -- given the right chemistry of conditions -- where an intersect of human reason and animal instinct meet in a savage moment.
The novel opens in the present, with a group of twelve middle-aged women meeting for a reunion at the school they attended in the 1960s. Things have changed, among them: heavier bodies, health problems, marriage problems, and aging in general. Add to that political changes – as they are all reminded when visiting the renamed Mandela (formerly Kitchener) Dormitory. The world is rapidly changing. This reunion calls forth memories -- and a collective secret -- of a fateful year for all of them, in particular, the memory of their swimming instructor Miss G, and the 13th member of their group, Fiamma.
All the women were members of the school's swim team – coached by Miss G., who was idolized by the girls. Miss G. is a lesbian who struts her stuff in khakis, black boots, and short hair. She urges the girls to trust their instincts and set free their “libidinal urges.” She even warns them that to not do so will -- prophetically as it turns out -- lead to aggression. Miss G. enjoys creating a climate of flirtatious suspense, though one suspects this is largely out of boredom. She doesn't physically approach the girls but instead plays the tease, through gestures, comments, and various head-games. The girls themselves have been largely abandoned at the school by their families. Miss G serves, in a way, as a surrogate mother, but more so as a guide into a sexual world just beginning to open up for the girls, a world where the potential of their bodies is only now being felt. One night, and significantly after Fiamma's arrival, Miss G crosses that physical line she had always maintained with the girls by getting them up for a round of skinny dipping:
In the dim light and the warm water, we slipped back to a timeless time: we were small again, swimming through water to catch Miss G's phosphorescent, shining body. Soon we were swimming around her, under her, Fuzzie at her feet, Di at her head, Meg at her waist. Like minnows around the mother fish, we touched an arm, a leg, a toe; we felt her all over us in the water. She was swimming fast, turning her head back and forth, breathing in and out, beating the water evenly, surging beside us, and then she was lying still on her back, arms outstretched, staring up at the swirl of stars in the deep blue sky. We too lay on our backs and stared up at the stars. We thought we could hear the music of the spheres; the stars were singing to us; our mothers were chanting to us, we could hear the beating of Miss G's heart. Our heads spun. We floated on beside Miss G in the moonlight and mysterious quiet of the night, the lights of the school glimmering faintly in the distance, only the crickets chirping.
We saw our mothers waving to us from afar; we saw them coming toward us in the starlight, their silver skirts blown against their bodies; we heard them calling our names with surprised delight. We watched them bending over and reaching out their arms and catching us up and swinging us through the air. We were flying. We were light as light can be. We left our bodies behind and flew, free through the air. We could smell the chlorine and the jasmine and the mysterious verbena scent of Miss G's skin. We felt the water ripple against our naked bodies like air, and we watched our mother's heads come down over us in the half dark to kiss our foreheads, our cheeks, our noses, our chins, and our lips, and the splashing of the water kissed our faces, and the beating of our hearts said, *Good night, good night.*
The “good night, good night” refrain is of course from Ophelia's mad speech. Kohler's intent here is multiple, with the girls swimming in almost amniotic fluid, on their way to a new birth, with their fast fading childhoods, left behind. But madness is also present. For Miss G, a sexual guide of a mythic cast, is also unbalanced in presence of the beautiful Fiamma. Her loneliness, is apparent, aching:
Miss G was calling us softly. She made us get out of the water and stand by the edge of the pool in the pale white light. Water dripped from our hair. The moonshine was as warm as sun on our faces and on our new breasts. We stared at Miss G's strong, brown legs, the shadow of the shaved hair at the tops. She told us we were her girls. Otherwise she felt far away, removed. She paused. A blankness had come over her face. She said, “I feel at such a distance from the rest of the world.”
It is the arrival of Fiamma (overwhelmingly blonde like Golding's Ralph) that destroys Miss G's world and severs her relationship with the other girls of the swim team. She's obsessed with Fiamma, who is both beautiful and filled with a natural grace. However, it is a cold grace -- one that takes the form of complete detachment from those around her. She is viewed as playing the Queen by the members of her dorm and is blamed as the source of Miss G's unhappiness. Fiamma detachment also increases Miss G's desire all the more, until finally she approaches Fiamma in a brief sexual encounter in the showers, where they are seen by Di, the former favorite of Miss G:
There was not a word spoken. Miss G was watching Fiamma, and her face was wet, her mouth slightly open. Then she moved toward Fiamma, slowly, and put her arms around her. She lowered her dark head to Fiamma's boosie and sucked, making noises like a baby. Di wanted to weep because Miss G had never touched her boosies.
Di's resentment over this incident slops over to the rest of the girls, who feel they've been mistreated by Miss G since her infatuation with Fiamma. It is Di's fury that will fuel the coming tragedy. One night, they all get drunk and decide to act out Keat's “Eve of St. Agnes,” with Di playing a mustached Porphyro. It's a rowdy, decadent, gender-switching time for the girls, but it turns serious with Miss G's appearance at the door:
She called for Fiamma. She called again, and Fiamma emerged slowly from the shadows. She tottered slowly from the shadows. She tottered, or perhaps Bobby Joe pushed her, though Bobby Joe denied it later. Bobby Jean, who became a social worker, said she saw her twin pull Fiamma from beside the bed where she was hiding when Miss G called for her. Then Fiamma floated forward. Everyone else was too drunk to speak.
We did recall that Fiamma had remained half naked since early evening. Her sheet had slipped down to her waist, baring her full, white bosoms. Her hair was loose. Her crown of daisies tilted across her brow into one eye. Her gold eye shadow was smudged, her lipstick, spread wide like a clown's. Like all of us she smelled of alcohol and sweat.
Fiamma's appearance is simply too much for Miss G, and she leads her away by the hand – presumably toward some sort of rape. The next day, in chapel, it is apparent that something has happened to Fiamma. But Fiamma is no meek victim and promises to tell. What follows is an insane walk into the nearby veldt, where tragedy awaits in a game of “Truth.”. Ms. Kohler is a gifted writer of prose, a first class stylist. However, in a self-deprecating move, she makes herself a figure in her own novel -- a Sheila Kohler, who, later in life, would only succeed in writing thrillers about “murdered girls.” “Cracks” is indeed a kind of thriller, but it is also much more.