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Of Letters and of Sciences

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SPOILER ALERT!

Barren Landscape: I Can Respect the Writing, but---No, I Kind of Can't

Cracks - Sheila Kohler

This is one of the weirdest freaking books I have ever read.

The premise is wonderful: a group of pent-up, repressed girls at a boarding school

Anyway, welcome to this girls' boarding school. It's a throwback to the finishing school types of the past century; these are well-off almost-teenagers whose parents have decided that boarding school is the way to go; or else have simply dumped them in boarding school (in one student's case) for punishment.

 

One of the interesting things about this novel that I've never read in another book is the continuous use of the first person plural. I mean, THE ENTIRE BOOK is written using "we".

 

And this is not Ayn Rand's use of "we" in Anthem to symbolize the collective nature of the personal in a communist society (cool though that is; but I hate Ayn Rand, so never mind that)

 

One of the interesting, even brilliant (but mostly interesting, because the book fails on so many other levels) is this use of the "we" tense throughout the entire book. And I mean THE ENTIRE BOOK.

 

Some third person references are made when necessary: ie. "_____ ran to the archway". But, it took me a good 100 pages to realize that everything the girls say is related through "we" and "us".

 

That is an interesting achievment; the book can certainly be called a collective fictional memoir. It's a group of girls looking back on this period in their lives and telling of what happened. But it's never explicity presented that way.

And I like that.

 

Many books today open with explicitly telling you whose point of view it is and painstaikingly creating a cast of characters with voices that bounce around during the novel and sometimes it is just too much to take.

Kohler is more elegant than that, and more literary. She doesn't open the book (like Kazuo Ishiguro does in Never Let Me Go) by writing 'YO. I'M A CHARACTER AND I'M LOOKING BACK AT THIS."

 

She's subtler than that; the book opens with almost a chorus of girls' voices; they are apparently older now but we don't know the details. We don't know where they live, what they do, what has happened to them. And we're not supposed to. This book is a time capsule.

 

It takes a little while to realize that the narrator of this book is in the plural. It's a gutsy move, and, for an unorthodox method, it's executed very well and smoothly.

 

It also underscores the main theme of the novel: mob mentality.

 

So, plot-wise:

 

The book centres around a group of girls in their own "clique" who strive to the be the best in everything they do---in lessons, certainly, but mostly in swimming. This group, headed by some rather strong characters, adore their swimming and art instructor, Miss G.

 

She is quite the enigmatic figure, but we get a good sense of her: she wears scarves and headbands (clear Orientalism but whatever), kohl, and seems to be some sort of "exotic". I'll explain: she tells the girls stories of "faraway lands" and adventures in India and Africa. SPOILER ALERT: It is hinted that she has never actually been to India or Africa.

 

MAJOR SPOILER ALERT::: In fact, at one point, we discover that a "personal story" with which she had been regaling the girls is actually a printed poem. By someone else.

 

So Miss G is a fraud.

 

None of the girls know this, however. They look to her for their inspiration on everything from sexuality to fashion to worldly outlook. Her "example" (at least, the one she projects) is that they can do anything they want; and that it is only lack of courage and creativity that hinder them.

 

She can be harsh, demanding that they take risks. But she clearly cares for them.

 

Enter Fiamma, an Italian noblewoman (or noble"teenager"), I suppose, who arrives in disgrace from a forbidden romance. She has been sent to be "caged". (And indeed, the school is, in many ways, a nunnery).

 

Fiamma "foreignness" becomes a tool. She is literally from outside the country; and she is also literally outside the claustrophobic scope of the adoring British schoolgirls towards their teacher.

 

Fiamma holds the British in low regard in general, but she is massively unimpressed by the fluff and peacock-like preening of Miss G. Miss G pretends at glamour; Fiamma, rich and entitled, has it. She doesn't much antagonize anyone, but it is clear that she outshines not only the girls (a source of serious jealousy), but even Miss G.

 

And then something happens.

 

There is a reason why the book is written in the first person plural; there is a reason why no one character is isolated for narration.

There is a reason that these girls cling to one another as a sense of identity even after they've left the school.

 

And this reason, as you might guess, is that something deeply dark ends up happening at the school.

 

I'll free word associate. Sexuality seriously comes into play. Jealousy is evil and green and rampant and violent (perhaps one of the best portrayals of Envy I've read). And the book ends with a horror.

 

There's a reason the girls speak in the plural. They're protecting themselves.

 

BUT as interesting as this premise is; handled in different hands, it could have been a better read. Kohler is undoubtedly a good writer. And this subject is rife and ripe and engrossing. But her writing is disjointed; we never (because of the plural tense) get a good SENSE of who this girls are, what motivates them, and how, really to distinguish them. The "we" is a bold and interesting literary move, but, as it relates to the novel, ti makes the characters vacuous. We can't get a grip or a good sense of who they are.

 

It is a very confusing, slippery landscape, and, quite frankly, when I read it, I at times felt utterly frustrated and alone and pretty mad, actually. I was like "WHAT AM I READING!?!? WHY THE HELL---WHAT IS GOING ON!?"

So, yeah, if you don't end up pulling your hair out in the barren landscape that is this novel's text, you might enjoy it. Ideologically.

 

So then they made a movie, and that gets the message across MUCH BETTER than the book does. At some point, the book becomes almost painful to read; but it's not because of the subject matter; it because of the writing and the way Kohler has chosen to present her story.

 

And the movie is actually pretty/really good.

 

BARREN. LANDSCAPE.

 

Anyway, just be warned, the ending of this book is extremely, piercingly painful.

 

That is all.