A group of South African women who were all members of a boarding-school swimming team revisit a shared and haunted past in Kohler's polished, compact and chilling third novel. Summoned by their old headmistress after developers threaten the school's grounds, 12 middle-aged women return to the rural South African terrain of their childhoods. They were the last to see the team's star, Fiamma, just before she disappeared forever into the barren Transvaal veldt around the school. Kohler's short chapters alternate scenes from the reunion with flashbacks to their youthful companionship--and rivalry. The group includes Di Radfield, the team captain; the bookish Ann Lindt; Sheila Kohler, an American (who shares the author's name and her vocation); pretty Meg Donovan; and others only briefly seen. Their swimming coach, Miss G, guides the students closely and manipulatively, showing an interest that borders on the sexual. When Fiamma Coronna, an Italian girl who claims royal lineage, joins the team, Miss G exalts her over the rest of the swimmers, creating at first competition, then resentment, along with sexual jealousy. Kohler (The House on R Street) narrates the story in the first-person plural: ""We always had cramps in our toes. Our hair was always wet. Our hands were always damp and cold and our fingers crinkled."" The curt ""we"" and Kohler's clipped, effective descriptions generate an abiding sense of myth, collective experience and collective guilt. At the same time, these tactics prevent readers from growing attached to any one individual, asking us to focus instead on the novel's rich mood. The result is a narrative at once powerful and hollow, an extremely well-made technical experiment. Finding at last how and why Fiamma vanished, some readers will feel the experiment justified; others may feel she was never really there. (Sept.) FYI: Parts of the novel have appeared in the Paris Review.
Reviewed on: 08/30/1999 Release date: 09/01/1999 Genre: Fiction