Kohler, Sheila. Cracks. Zoland Books, 1999.
At 165 pages, Cracks is a short novel, though it carries an oppressive weight. The story takes place at a girls’ boarding school set in 1960s South Africa. It follows the swimming team as it navigate its possessive devotion to its coach, a charismatic Miss G, and its uncertainty and scorn around Italian transfer student and star swimmer, Fiamma Coronna. Time is nonlinear as the scenes go back and forth between the present time, in which the swimming team meets at its fortieth reunion, and the past, as the team remembers back to its schoolgirl days, and to the events leading up to Fiamma’s disappearance. The story feels like a daydream, sensual and hazy with the heat of the Transvaal, and surreal with the fuzziness of collective memory.
Cracks is told in a first-person plural point-of-view from the perspective of the twelve swimming team girls, excluding Fiamma. The “we” highlights the collective, emphasizing how all of the girls (or middle-aged women) experience the same feelings, thoughts, and sensations. The focus is not on the girls’ individuality, and there are several occasions where the particular speaker is not even mentioned, as in: “One of us tells the old joke about the parrot…but no one laughs” (8).
Occasionally, one of the team members stands apart and is noted, as in the two-page spread seamlessly going into what sounds like third-person close narration to describe Meg’s experience of going into town for tea with Miss G (46-47). Then the narrator “we” returns and shows that Meg had told the whole group about her experience; the group had taken on her memories and feelings as its own. In this way, the “we” is like an amoeba, where an arm might extend out on its own for a brief time before the rest of the amoeba re-absorbs it.
The use of the “we” allows the author to guide where the focus of the reader should be, whether the reader should see an individual or a group. Kohler uses the “we” very strategically, going between setting the girls apart by describing individual girls’ actions, and keeping them all indistinguishable as a group, as in:
“We shifted about and pulled at our socks and flared our eyebrows and sucked in
our cheeks and goggled in mock amazement and awe. Di shrugged her broad shoulders and lifted the top of her desk as though she were looking for a book and mumbled, ‘So what’ to Meg, who grinned. Ann, who never missed anything, turned around and gave Di her twisted smile. Pamela snickered. We did not like aristocrats.” (23)
This precision allows Kohler to manipulate how readers feel in each moment of the story, as the two options of individuality and collectivity evoke very different feelings—either the expansiveness of having space and room to breathe between the girls, or the contraction and smothering quality of seeing all of the girls as one dark, oppressive, and cultish entity.
Cracks would be an entirely different story without its use of the first-person plural. The swimming team is one group, one pack:
“We kept moving slowly, driven onward by the heat, the mosquitoes, the flies, the dullness of the long Sunday afternoon. We all sauntered along the bank chewing on pieces of grass, arms thrown loosely around one another’s waists or shoulders, smacking at mosquitoes, wiping the sweat from our brows, our shadows mingling. There was nothing to do.” (138)
The claustrophobia and heaviness of the heat of South Africa mirrors the claustrophobia of middle-aged women returning to where they had lived as children, where they feel smaller and closed in by the weight of expectations long out-grown. These in turn mirror the claustrophobia of the “hive mind,” of the mob: “They went on staring at us sullenly, as we walked down the steps that led into the long, covered corridor. Slowly we descended them, linked like a chain, one after the other” (115).
The “we” emphasizes the anonymity of the group, of girls allowing emotions and desires to overtake them without having to fear the consequences, as when Fiamma does the girls’ makeup for a celebration of St. Agnes Eve:
“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. We were wild and free. Afterward, because of the heat and sweat, much of the makeup ran, streaking our faces like those of savages.” (121)
This POV calls attention to the cruelty of children when brought to think of themselves as one mind, one being, shining a light on the darkness in what society praises for being so innocent and pure:
“We shouted and rushed forward as a group, running through long grass and scrub, excited by the chase. ‘Madeline, Madeline, you are going to be our Madeline,’ we shouted wildly. The shouting made us feel brave and reckless.” (159)
It highlights the outsider status of those who are not in the “we,” of Fiamma, who “jumped up and down on the gray marble as though she were trampling on grapes, kicking out at us as we slapped at her. She did not seem to understand that we were only playing” (160).
When someone does speak up, dares to challenge the authority of the group and shatter the collective daydream of fun and games, she is immediately cast out: “‘Hey, quit hurting her, she can’t breathe properly,’ Fuzzie said softly, but no one heeded. We did not let her through the circle we had formed around the tomb” (162).
Finally, the “we” perspective allows for the middle-aged women telling this story to deny their individual complicity in the rape and death of Fiamma Coronna until the very end of the novel, when they are finally ready to acknowledge what had happened at the boarding school forty years prior. With its theme of the violence of innocence and its careful use of the first-person plural, Cracks reads like the little girls’ version of Lord of the Flies.