Cracks by Sheila Kohler

I picked this book up because of a short piece in Vanity Fair in which it is described as The Children’s Hour meets Lord of the Flies. I haven’t read The Children’s Hour, but I have read Lord of the Flies. So given that comparison along with a few other tidbits that appeal to me - I checked it out from the library.

I was not disappointed. Kohler uses the first person plural to narrate the memories of a group of women who were on the swim team of their boarding school together many years ago. This viewpoint, which includes the author as one of the fictional swimmers, removes guilt from a single person and lends their feelings - jealousy, eagerness, shyness, enthusiasm, competitiveness, lust - a degree of credibility. It’s almost as if by speaking for the group rather than the individual it becomes alright for the reader to accept as fact what might otherwise be colored by the time between then and now. It also helps that young teenage girls are cliquey and vicious.

Kohler’s gift for description - both of how the school appeared as they were girls and how it has changed in the decades since - brings South Africa to life. The way that people talk about New York City being a character in movies and tv shows, Kohler has made South Africa a character in her novel. The drought that stretches through the narrative is almost tactile. This “character” - the drought - actually heightens the sympathy the reader has for the girls and their situation. They have a teacher - also their swim coach - for whom they all want to be the teachers pet. The heat, the water rationing, the dust...and the New Girl, Fiamma...it all serves to feed their madness. (Come on - there’s a Lord of the Flies reference, you knew there would be madness.)

This teacher, Miss G., on whom the girls have “Cracks” (crushes) is, in fact, the least sympathetic character in the book. She spews out repetitive speeches during late-night “Team meetings” about letting go of inhibitions and embracing your emotions...it all has an air of Venus Fly Trap about it. And it’s no wonder that things go awry.

I read this book quickly - it is well written and engaging and I needed to know what happened...and when it was over, I closed it, looked at my visiting mother, and said “Well. That was disturbing.” Hauntingly so. But I do look forward to the film of the same name, which will be out at the end of the year.

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