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In all groups, regardless of age or sex, there will be violence. Inevitably, terribly, some member of the group will be hurt—or worse. Unchecked, bickering will degenerate into bullying; teasing will escalate into torture; rivalry will give way to brutality, triggering in-fighting, jealousy, and—in the most extreme cases—the group’s complete disintegration. That is, unless the group identifies a scapegoat outside itself, a victim, and focuses its collective blood lust on this outsider, sacrificing (and, sometimes, slaughtering) him or her in order to maintain peace, however temporarily, among its members. It is ritualistic behavior, as old as the oldest religions, and unavoidable: The buildup to violence finds release only with some act of violence.
Which is why, when the 12 girls on the swim team in Sheila Kohler’s novel Cracks immediately resent Fiamma Coronna, a transfer student from Italy, there is little doubt of how Kohler’s pubescent psychosexual thriller will play out. Like The Secret History, Donna Tartt’s superb novel about college students who turn murderous, Cracks is a suspense story concerned with both atmosphere and particulars. Set among the veldts of South Africa, under enormous jacaranda trees, and across plains of tall grass—evoked in plain, potent prose—Cracks reveals in its first few pages that Fiamma vanished under mysterious circumstances. The questions that grip the reader, until Kohler’s final, understated but horrific climax, are: What exactly happened to Fiamma? Who exactly did what?
Cracks begins with the most terrifying of rituals: the class reunion. The “lovely garland of girls” who once swam under the fanatical tutelage of their coach, Miss G, are now women in their 40s. They have returned to their unnamed school, “which was renowned for neither academic excellence nor illustrious alumnae,” to find things much changed: “We are to sleep in the dormitory now called Mandela,” Kohler’s narrator says, capturing in that simple sentence South Africa’s radical political shifts over the last three decades. The girls, too, are different, not just physically—the swim team’s former captain, Di Radfield, has let her “once-slender body…run to fat,” for instance—but also in their personalities: “We have become awkward with one another,” the narrator says, adding later, “Nor do we mention that Fiamma is not among us. The subject remains unmentionable among all the bearers of the secret.”
The women have come back at the behest of their headmistress, Miss Nieven, whose “face is a web of wrinkles.” Without an infusion of money from its alumnae, Miss Nieven explains, she will be forced to parcel off the school’s land for sale, including its most historic section: the small graveyard that was forbidden to the girls, near the river, where the school’s founder, Sir George Harrow, and his bull terrier are buried in a gray marble grave. “The next thing you know they’ll let a developer bulldoze those graves and turn up those bones,” Nieven says, and with that remark, Cracks, like a river
overflowing its banks, spills from the present into the past, where the bulk of Kohler’s short novel unfolds.
The schoolgirls are familiar types: the bookish loner, the scholarship students, the orphaned twins seemingly plucked from William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (an obvious source of inspiration), the abused beauty, the fat girl, the would-be writer (here named Sheila Kohler, whose “stories came to the same dramatic finale: violent death”), and so on. Kohler sketches them quickly, less concerned with establishing them as individuals than she is with presenting them as a menacing collective. In their most profound wants and fears and sentiments, in a conceit helped by the author’s smart decision to use a first-person plural narrator, the girls are always lumped together. “We were nasty to all new girls, especially foreigners,” the narrator explains without apology. “We were proud of our new country’s independence, even if our mothers still called England home.” Nowhere are the girls’ collective desires evidenced more intensely than when they are near their “crack,” their crush, their beloved swimming coach:
Miss G was our crack. When you had a crack you saw things more clearly…You wanted to lie down alone in the dark and in the music room and listen to Rachmaninoff and to the summer rains rushing hard down the gutters….If you accidentally brushed up against your crack and felt her boosie, you nearly fainted.
Into this hothouse of adolescent yearnings arrives the unsuspecting Fiamma. One of only two truly individualized personalities in Cracks, Fiamma is the product of Kohler’s dark side. Kohler has made Fiamma an “R.C.,” a Roman Catholic, looked on with suspicion by the other, mostly Protestant, schoolgirls. She has made her “actually a real princess…from an old, aristocratic Italian family,” alienating her from her bourgeois classmates. Fiamma is beautiful, soulful, aloof, and rich. (She is in South Africa because her father is there, “buying diamonds for his collection.”) The girl has a physical weakness, too: “a breathing disorder.” And, most damningly, she is an excellent swimmer, Miss G’s instant favorite when the young Italian joins the swim team as an unlucky No. 13. The girls, all in lust with Miss G, shake with rage that their coach’s affections could be so fickle, that Miss G could be so weak-willed as to fall for Fiamma’s charms. Was ever a sacrificial victim so obvious (besides, of course, Piggy in Flies)?
If Fiamma is Cracks’ sacrificial victim, then Miss G is the novel’s high priestess, preparing her acolytes for the blood rituals ahead. Building on a stereotype, the demonic gym teacher, Kohler has created a figure of authority both frightening and charismatic. “Swim out of rage…and for God,” Miss G, in her khaki jumpsuit, tells her pupils, allowing them special privileges denied the girls who don’t swim: “She said we could and should break all the absurd rules that governed our young lives,” Kohler’s narrator remembers. It’s a sentiment that is echoed later, on the night before Fiamma’s disappearance. Drunk on spiked pineapple juice, gorged on “tins of condensed milk and sardines and peaches in sweet syrup,” celebrating “the Eve of St. Agnes” (both the religious holiday and Keats’ poem) with a feast and masquerade in their dormitory, the girls fulfill Miss G’s ambitions: “We felt like the inhabitants of some strange, distant land, and in our anonymity and the half dark of our dormitory, we could do anything, say anything, be anything we wanted.”
Kohler teases out her gruesome finale until almost the last page of her novel, folding the past into the present, with the girls once again grown women, looking across the veldts and seeing their actions replayed under the blazing white African sun. The act of violence, when it happens, is as savage as any other in the animal kingdom, rendered in terms that could describe a pack of hyenas overpowering a zebra stupidly strayed from its herd. Kohler has created a world of myth, of goddesses and virgins, in which Fiamma’s fate is absolutely believable and her attackers’ actions almost—but not quite—palatable. And then comes another jolt, just as frightening: The grown-ups, we realize, have known the truth of Fiamma’s disappearance all along. The girls, for their crimes, have been punished: Many are childless, in loveless marriages, leading empty lives. The teachers—the monsters behind the monsters—having sacrificed one of their own after Fiamma’s disappearance (the dispatching of this second scapegoat is one of many excellent conceits in Kohler’s narrative), march on. CP