Book Review: Readings

Sheila Kohler

Readings

Stories From Another World

by Sheila Kohler

Ontario Review Press, 152 pp., $22.95
Because the jacket of Sheila Kohler's new collection of short stories bears warm endorsements from Amy Tan and from J.M. Coetzee, her fellow South African native and recent winner of the Nobel Prize, it has a lot to live up to -- even before you open to its first page. The mind promptly primes itself for a damn good read.

The settings of Stories From Another World (vaguely apparent as Europe or South Africa) are always lush and privileged, from the misty country estate to the sports car careening down a sea road. You get the feeling of settling beneath a warm blanket; you relax. Which is pleasant, but perhaps not the response Kohler would want for these stories. They are typically brief glimpses of crises, often faced by a female character and often bolstered by an undercurrent of confused but powerful sexuality. One story, "Underworld," is about an old nun trying, very subtly, to seduce a 12-year-old girl; another, "Baboons," portrays a husband confessing an affair with a man to his wife; "Lunch With Mother" is about a sensual matriarch who has vast and perverse power over her 30-year-old son. There are also multiple stories of female adultery.

Kohler's stories are short and sparsely drawn, her language elegant, her tone quiet and psychological. The drawback to such a smooth texture of words and orchestrated themes is that we don't worry enough about these characters. We almost feel that, no matter what happens to them, there is an elegant, finely wrought net poised just beneath the story's reaches, ready to catch them if they should fall too far. Perhaps there is not the right measure of ugliness to balance so much beauty. Or perhaps the stories are just too short, so that we don't feel sufficiently invested in the fates of the shadowy characters, consequently lowering the stakes. Often a story would end just when my taste for it had been whetted. I had the sense of wishing Kohler would push her characters just a bit further, would let them develop past the easier ending and into less sure, polished territory.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Sheila Kohler, Stories From Another World, Ontario Review Press

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