One Girl
By Sheila Kohler
Helicon Nine Editions
paper, $12.95
November 21, 1999

Sheila Kohler presents her fifth book as "a novel in stories," as if to will it into unity. This is ultimately a story collection and not a novel, however, because while the threads running throughout do intertwine, her story lines are left tantalizingly unresolved. The book is divided into the stages of life ("Childhood," "Adolescence," "Courtship and Marriage," "Death") of the "one girl," who is actually several. Kohler's language is spare and haunting; she spools out information gradually, selecting what to reveal and what to keep hidden. "I like concealment," says one of her protagonists, as if speaking for the author. Conjuring a person, place or mood with a few well-chosen details, Kohler's descriptions sing in their lyrical precision; at turns crisp and languid, they are always sensual, and often sexual. Images frequently recur throughout this slender, evocative volume: a beautiful, alcoholic mother in a low-cut flowered dress; legs that feel watery, like their own reflections in a pool; faces that resemble masks; women watching themselves as if from outside; cloying odors; shadows, and a persistent contrast between light and dark; and most significantly, recycled characters' names. Kohler herself makes a cameo appearance as a bullying schoolgirl at a South African boarding school, leading the reader to wonder how much "One Girl" is meant to represent her own experiences.