Cracks by Sheila Kohler

Cracks

I knew what I was getting into with this one, I really did.

Like most people who have reviewed this book, I decided to seek this out because I had just watched the movie version and wanted to know how the two compared. Going into this book, I knew that the movie had taken several huge steps away from Kohler’s original story, and based on that knowledge I was pretty sure I wouldn’t love the book as much as I loved the movie. And I was positive that the book version of Miss G couldn’t come close to Eva Green’s charismatic, psychotic portrayal. But “Psychotic Schoolgirls Who Maybe Murdered Somebody” is one of my favorite literary genres, so in I plunged.

And wow. I knew the book and the movie were different; I just wasn’t prepared for how different. Cracks, the movie, takes place in England in the 1930’s, with a diving team that consists of only six girls. Fiamma, the wealthy and beautiful new student, is from Spain and has a tragic, scandalous past. Cracks, the book, takes place in South Africa and alternates between two time periods: flashbacks to when the girls were attending school in the 1960’s, and twenty-ish years later when they’ve returned to the school for a sort of reunion. The swimming team has twelve members (which means twice as many characters to keep track of, and consequently none of them get fleshed out properly), and Fiamma is Italian, and her character is much harder to pin down and define. It’s interesting, because although the movie drastically changed the big aspects of the story – setting, time period, character outlines – it kept a surprising amount of small details that appear in Kohler’s book. Comparing the two stories is an interesting study in the art of adaptation, and I could easily write an entire review about just that, but I digress.

Kohler’s book, as I said, takes place primarily in a girls’ boarding school in South Africa in the 1960’s (those looking for discussions about the political situation in South Africa will be disappointed; the social and racial issues are only hinted at and never addressed directly). The core group of characters are the twelve members of the school swimming team, who get a new member in Fiamma Coronna. Fiamma is an Italian aristocrat, and everyone is immediately fascinated by her – especially Miss G, the swimming teacher, whose fascination with Fiamma turns to obsession as the other girls become increasingly jealous. Sometime during that year, Fiamma disappeared in the countryside around the school, and the book unravels the mystery of what happened to her and why, interspersed with scenes of the girls returning to the school as middle-aged women.

I dunno, maybe I would have been more engrossed by the story if I hadn’t known what happened to Fiamma already, thanks to the movie (but those who have seen the movie will still be surprised – the circumstances of Fiamma’s death differ greatly in the book). Because I wasn’t busy trying to figure out how Fiamma disappeared, I was able to focus on other aspects of the story. And some of the narrative choices Kohler made are…interesting. The book is narrated by an omnipresent “we” – which, I think, was a good choice. Instead of focusing on a single main character, Kohler makes the girls into one single group entity, which both reinforces the terrifying groupthink of the girls and emphasizes how they are all collectively responsible for what happened to Fiamma. There is no “I” or “she” to pin the tragedy on; everyone is guilty. That was good; less good is the fact that one of the girls is named Sheila Kohler. Who grows up to be a writer.

I have no idea what to make of this. On the one hand, it’s an incredibly brave move to put yourself in a story like this, and to tie yourself so directly to the horrors committed in this book. On the other hand, it’s weird, because “Sheila Kohler” is not the narrator of the book (the narrator is the mysterious “we”), so we’re seeing her actions, as we see all the girls actions, from a removed distance. Is this Kohler’s way of keeping herself at a safe distance from the events she recounts? And most importantly, is Kohler doing like Tim O’Brien did with The Things We Carried, and making herself a character in a fictional story to make it more real for the reader, or does this book mean that Sheila Kohler committed the acts described in this book when she was in school?Is Cracks merely Sheila Kohler delivering her own version of story-truth, or is the novel her confession? I’m going with the first explanation, because that’s the only way I’ll be able to to sleep at night.

Other terrible narrative choices: some chapters are prefaced with a few lines of awful, awful poetry, like this one: “For Fiamma she could skim across the water,/As fast as could be,/For she was a prince’s daughter,/And Miss G loved her most passionately.” that are so awful I’m pretty sure Kohler wrote them that way intentionally, to mimic the awful poems we all wrote when we were fourteen. Which, fine, but it doesn’t make them any more painful to read.

And the decision to show scenes of the women as adults returning to the school serves no fucking purpose. The movie adaptation wisely chose to get rid of this aspect, and it was a wise choice: by keeping the story focused on the girls as teenagers, we never have to see them growing up and dealing with what they did (although the movie still includes a scene where the girls start to understand what a terrible thing they’ve done – another reason the movie is superior). But even Kohler’s book refuses to make this happen – what is the point of showing us these girls as adult women if they’re not going to deal with what they did when they were teenagers? There’s no reflection, no remorse, no discussion of what happened to Fiamma, and I don’t understand the point of showing the women returning to the school.

This is the main reason I prefer the movie version: although it doesn’t absolve the girls of their involvement in what happened to Fiamma, the movie places the majority of the blame where it should be: Miss G. Teenage girls and their psychotic cult-like cliques can be forgiven over time; Miss G was an adult who knew exactly what she was doing when she decided to ruin a teenage girl’s life. And Movie Miss G is much more nuanced, revealing insecurities and mental instability beneath her carefully-crafted facade (the movie does a very clever thing where Miss G’s hair, makeup, and clothing gradually become more messy and unpolished over the course of the movie as she unravels). Book Miss G is merely a cliche of a predatory older bull dyke who seduces young girls, like the worst nightmare of fundamentalists everywhere. Ugh. Book Miss G never answers for her part in Fiamma’s disappearance, whereas Movie Miss G…you know what, just go watch the movie. That’s what I want people to take from this review: go watch Cracks. Get your psychotic schoolgirl fix, and give Kohler’s book a pass.

“‘No inhibitions here! I will have no inhibitions here!’ she said sternly. ‘Repressions of libidinal urges only leads to aggression. Give me your secrets, girls, give me the dark depths of your hearts, and I will give you the light. Search your hearts, for the universe lies therein,’ and we searched and searched. ‘It is always more grubby than you think,’ she added, and we nodded our heads, knowing she was right. She said there were certain subjects we should get out of the way, so that we could go about our business. She knew what we were thinking.”

Verdict: one out of five stars

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