"There is grease around our mouths, down to our chins; our lips are stained with red wine, our lipstick, smudged, our camouflage, undone."
Everything is indeed undone during a rather somber reunion of middle age women who once attended a small girls' school in an uninhabited corner of South Africa. Brought together by a persuasive letter from their elderly headmistress, an accordion-faced wisp of a woman who desperately needs money in order to save the school from destruction, the women have traveled from all corners of the world; one --- Sheila Kohler, both the author's and character's name --- from as far as America. It turns out the returning women have one thing in common --- they were all members of the school's elite swim team, hand picked by the bronze goddess, Miss G. Why they are the only ones chosen for this reunion is a mystery that is unraveled by the end of the novel, which swings back and forth from present to past until the harrowing conclusion.
The swim team, as well as the rest of the students, all live in near isolation at this school in the middle of the parched desert sands of South Africa. Without mothers to sing them to sleep, stroke their feverish faces, soothe their tremulous tears, these girls turn to the only woman they can find --- not the withered headmistress or the embittered biology teacher --- but the most female, the most headstrong, courageous, outrageous, beautiful woman, the one in charge of selecting the girls for the swim team, the almighty Miss G. But just as fast as she selects them, she throws them away and picks new ones when the old disappoint her. The final 12 girls she selects are the same ones invited to the reunion 40 years later. All attend except two, but there is still someone missing. The luminous and distant Fiamma, whose mysterious disappearance years ago haunts the school and continues to eat away at the swim team members.
Fiamma was the golden girl, literally --- her long flaxen strands stretched out and curled like a Princess's. Indeed that's what she supposedly was, born from a common mother and a regal Italian father. From the beginning, the girls were in awe of this seemingly perfect specimen, her delicate milky white skin, large almost clear blue eyes, willowy limbs, and long plaited golden hair. Maybe the other girls would have embraced her if she even pretended to care what they thought --- but she didn't. Always aloof, reserved, and mysterious, Fiamma didn't indulge in their games or secrets, and the girls despised this. It's not until later that they wonder if she was only waiting to be asked. All the adults, however, were enamored by Fiamma's luminosity and heritage, including the headmistress and especially Miss G, who after seeing her streamlined body gliding through the water like a sleek vessel, bribed her with sweets to join the swim team. Fiamma reluctantly consented and became the fastest girl on the team --- and Miss G's object of desire.
The book most often hovers in the past, but returns sporadically to the present, always through the collective voice of the girls in what writer's refer to as first person plural narration, a deceptively familiar voice, which always keeps the reader an arm's length distance away from the true inner thoughts of the characters. Because of this somewhat vague narration, when the reader finally pieces together the puzzle at the end and the truth crashes over like a wave, there is a moment of "How could I have not seen this coming?"
There are secrets hidden in every sentence of this haunting and at times horrifying book --- secrets that you aren't aware of until you reach the final pages. It's an ending that makes you pause, and then flip back through to see what you missed the first time around. The tautly told story with its tropical backdrop of sterile humidity is in great contrast to the young women's budding fecundity. Fiamma's fate is sealed from the first page, but to find out what happened, you have to make the journey with her and the rest of the girls who have returned to their school, not entirely of their own free will, to confront the past and to ensure the school a future.
Reviewed by Dana Schwartz on September 1, 2000