It is a rainy day in Salt Lake City as I sit down to write—appropriately, the subjects in question are doom, privilege, and diamond mines. Ominously, Chopin’s “Funeral March” is the first song that comes through my headphones. Indeed Sheila Kohler’s novel Love Child is written with a trajectory similar to some of Thomas Hardy’s darkest works (Jude the Obscure comes to mind; Jude is even referenced in the middle chapters), manipulating the feelings and loyalties the reader may have to its characters. Centering on a South African woman (Bill) who is reflecting upon her life after being asked to write her will, Love Child is a story of forbidden marriage, love triangles, and the heartache of displaced family.
The novel follows the life of Bill, a newly wealthy widow who was brought up in humble circumstances, as she attempts to write her living will. The delegation of her fortune requires her to reexamine her life in order to place monetary hierarchy on her family members. Because of this, the novel is set up non-linearly, as Bill narrates her life in three separate sections:
1) The 1920s: when she eloped at 17 with a man named Issac who worked for her father. Her parents disapproved, so Bill and Issac got married at a court house and made the trek to her ‘maiden aunties’ home, expecting (but not finding) sympathetic ears. Her aunties call her parents—who come immediately—Issac is thrown to the curb, and Bill is left to wait out her pregnancy (because, yes, there IS an actual love child) with her miserable relations who refuse to talk to her. When the baby—a girl—is born, she is snatched and sold from her mother’s sleeping arms, never to be seen again.
2) The 1930s: Wherein Bill, as a slightly more adult fully homestead-ly restored to her parents’ house, finds herself a job as live-in help and unwittingly becomes part of a ménage-a-trois. The triad leads to her betrothal to the man of the house and the death of the woman of the house. This marriage inevitably makes her a very wealthy woman, thus beginning the novel.
3) The 1950s: In which Bill lives all alone in a big estate with occasional servants and constant family dinners that serve mostly to parade her wealth in front of the eyes of her thrifty siblings.
After much deliberating, Bill wills the majority of her vast estate to her stolen daughter and then, in classic Hardyian fashion, dies tragically young of alcoholism, much like the woman in her former triad. Poetic justice? Perhaps. The last half chapter of the book sees much activity: Bill’s maid Gladys finds the missing daughts and everyone tears up.
Bill is portrayed as a strangely dystopian heroine, much like Tess of the D’urbervilles. Perhaps the intention behind her tragic stoicism is to skew the text as feminist—either way, the reader feels inconsistent loyalty to each character in a manner that seems intentional. Kohler writes the characters into the hearts of the reader just before slapping the character with a trait so disdainful that the reader is left wondering what the purpose of the book is.
Despite my weakness for the beat-you-while-you’re-down tragedies of Hardy’s style, with which Kohler seems in conversation or lineage, the plot is largely an over-wrought and unbelievable love story. The characters are disconnected and unaware of their own socio-economic privilege and whiteness in the weirdly disjointed space of South Africa, and the non-linearity of the novel serves only to barely cloak the poor craftsmanship of the writing—even then, only to the most undiscerning reader.
What Kohler does extremely well, however, is create stunning images of South African nightfall, therefore situating the reader in a solidly tangible place. In fact, in a story of grandiosity and pomposity, I felt personally more swept away by the stark imagery than the personal lives and decisions of the novel’s characters. Without the context of how and why Bill’s family settled in South Africa, the reader is left feeling apathetic and disconnected from the protagonist and anything she may have to contribute to the story. Kohler, unfortunately, is no Thomas Hardy.