Old family scandals are revisited by a South African woman in this seventh novel from the expatriate South African writer (Bluebird, or The Invention of Happiness, 2007, etc.).
She’s the pretty daughter of a diamond appraiser in Johannesburg. He works alongside her father. They’re still in their teens, but it’s love at first sight. She’s a Christian, he’s a Jew, a huge problem. They elope in a borrowed Chevy and head for her father’s hometown, stopping only to make love at a hotel. She hopes the aunts she remembers so fondly will shelter them. Wrong call. The three maiden ladies are horrified by the scandal (it’s 1925) and call her parents. Her father arrives and ends their romance. Isaac leaves defiantly, Bill remains behind, her aunts’ prisoner. Kohler has featured Bill (her childhood tomboy name) before, in her 1994 novel The House on R Street. Nine months later, Bill gives birth and her baby is snatched away, sold to adoptive parents. This is the only dramatic episode in a limp novel, so it’s unfortunate that it’s cut up into pieces, sandwiched between events 10 and 30 years later. The scandal has stayed buried until 1956, when Bill discloses it to her teenage sons. In the interim, there has been a second scandal. In 1935, Bill is hired as a companion to a wealthy woman, a lonely alcoholic whose businessman husband is often away. Mark, the sexually voracious husband, pursues Bill, who insists he first divorce Helen before marrying her. After the marriage, the three continue living together in an improbable ménage. Then Helen dies, and Bill becomes a heavy drinker too. Had she ever loved Mark? Readers will find it difficult to tell from the distanced narration. As for the eponymous love child, don’t hold your breath; she doesn’t appear till the very end.
Lonely women in hushed bedrooms form the dominant image in a disjointed work that, aside from that brief elopement, is also passionless.