Sheila Kosher, Love Child

Publisher: Penguin

2011, 235 pages, paperback, $15

set in south Africa, Sheila Kosher’s Love Child is a story about a strong wealthy widow, known as Bill. The book opens with Bill’s accountant, who informs her that she must make her own will. Bill is stirred up with memories of her youthful affair with Isaac, her father’s co-worker. We learn that Bill’s father, a diamond evaluator, disapproved of Bill’s affair with Isaac because he is Jewish. But the clandestine affair leads to the couple’s elopement, which complicates Bill’s life. The nightmarish chapters, in which Bill is trapped at her aunt’s house, capture Bill’s helplessness, giving us a sense of the moral codes of the society.

Kosher’s prose is inconsistent—at times, delightful and evocative, and, at others, plain clunky and awkward. The drama is mostly muted and understated, and it unfolds Bill’s secret and shame masterfully. Structurally, the chapters alternate between Bill’s past, when she was a young girl in the 1920s, and her present as a widow in the 1950s. Young Bill is “restless and reckless,” wanting excitement, danger, and love. But at forty-eight, she is emotional, lonely, and worn out like the women in her life. She “has always been surrounded by women who kept secrets in shaded, silent places, but the secrets did not keep them. They wore away at them, worried them from the inside out, and destroyed them, slowly.”

The novel is populated with a huge cast of characters—however, they seem typical. The black servants are loyal, mature, and have integrity; whereas, the main characters, including Bill, seem flighty and lacking emotional depth and understanding. Her sons are portrayed as intellectually snobbish, and Bill is unable to connect with them. The chapters that deal with how Bill got married to a rich man seemed sketchy and not as evocative as Bill’s previous affair. As a nurse to a depressed woman, Helen, Bill maneuvers the landscape of a wealthy household and wins over Mark. But Mark’s character seemed like a refashioned Mr. Rochester, and Helen, a sensible version of the mad woman in the attic in Jane Eyre, a repetitive theme that Kosher already explored before in Becoming Jane Eyre.

The setting of Johannesburg is effective as a character in itself—the sights, sounds, and smells of the place bring to life a society that never accepts Bill. However, the politics of South African apartheid era aren’t explored in detail and, therefore, rendered short the sociopolitical depth of this historic period. Even though issues of race, class, and gender are touched upon, Kosher’s presentation of the political seems inadequate and not as compelling as the personal narratives.

On her website, the author explains that her work focuses on the intimate relationships between people:

When my sister died a violent death twenty-five years ago in apartheid South Africa, my writing took a new turn. I was driven to explore the reasons for violence within intimate relationships, in particular, the abuse of power and privilege. Since then I have published seven novels, three collections of short stories, and several others not yet collected, all of which focus in some way on this theme. They represent my attempt to delve into the mysteries of hate and anger, and of love and compassion, as well.

In Becoming Jane Eyre, Kosher relies on biographies and her imagination as she paints Emily Bronte’s world. In Love Child, she draws from family history and personal experience. Love Child is based on the author’s mother, who was wealthy and inherited money. Kosher uses the names of her family members: Bill was her mother’s nickname; Haze and Pie, her mother’s sisters; and the three maiden aunts in the book borrow their names from the author’s real-life aunts, May, Maud, and Winnie.

Kosher’s strength lies in avoiding sentimentality and melodrama, always in control of the emotional tone of the novel. As compared to Cracks and Becoming Jane Eyre, Love Child seems pale in comparison but, nonetheless, renders an engrossing tale packed with haunting images. The restrained drama with cinematographic narrative in Love Child, however, has a lot to offer its readers even though Kosher’s vision might not be completely satisfying.

—Real Prufrock