Although a recent LA Times reviewer gave this book a rather lackluster appraisal, I thought that Kohler’s subtle, emotionally sparse examination of wealth, class, racism, and power in South Africa truly transcends time as her central protagonist searches for a long-lost child born of love. It’s 1956; Bill lies in her big bed in her silk dressing gown, her cream curtains closed
against the glare of southern light that comes from the barren veldt of the Transvaal.
In this unusually early and dry summer, a smell lingers in the air when Bill’s faithful
mixed-blood servant Gladys answers the door to Mr. Parks, the vague and pompous family accountant, who tells Bill in no uncertain terms that it’s high time she made her will. With her husband
dead six months and her considerable wealth in question, it’s time to avoid delays and confusion for her two teenage boys.
Despite Bill’s affluence and her husband’s position, Johannesburg society has largely snubbed her. She also misses her boys terribly. At an early age they were sent to an expensive boarding school. They’re hard-working and well-meaning, but they’re also intellectual snobs. They’re like strangers or someone else’s children
to Bill - the kind of people she would never feel at ease with.
Secrets are hidden, silences are kept, and lies are told, Bill’s "weeping of bitter tears" a
seeming constant. As Bill wonders what she should tell her family, pictures of her early life flood her mind with shame, sadness, and confusion.
An irreparable loss centering on a passionate act remains Bill's personal shame, quietly festering until thirty years later, when Mr. Parks comes through her door.
Flashback to 1925. Bill’s hard-working, devout father takes her to his office, a diamond business where she meets Isaac,
whose red head and beard catch in the beams of bright sunlight. Bill sees in Isaac a kindred spirit, but
when they elope to Kimberly on the Northwest Cape, a vexing tale is set in motion as the swelling of first passion belies the awful ramifications of their arrival on her aunts’ doorstep.
If only Bill could escape the confines of the house and have Isaac rescue her “like the prince who comes through the forest.” As her spinster aunts watches over her with a severe eye, she only adds a burden to their already strained circumstances, her “moral deficiency” an affront to their upright, cloistered way of life. From her aunts’ hapless collusion to her role as guide to wealthy, sorrowful Helen, Kohler presents her heroine’s vulnerability, the sadness and loss of her first love combined with her loneliness and dashed hopes.
Kohler’s novel is gorgeous, written with a muted strength that reflects Bill’s secret shame. Bill never finds deliverance from her secret regrets,
but diligent, wise Gladys, who has lived her entire life vicariously through these white people, gives her mistress hope and a need to finally discover the truth about her past.