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Kohler, Sheila 1941–

Kohler, Sheila 1941–

(Sheila May Kohler)

PERSONAL: Born November 13, 1941, in Johannesburg, South Africa; immigrated to the United States; daughter of Max (a timber merchant) and Sheila Kohler; married Boris Troyan, February 4, 1961 (divorced); married William Tucker (a psychiatrist), April 12, 1986; children: Sasha, Cybele, Brett. Education: Sorbonne, University of Paris, license, 1973; Catholic Institute, Paris, France, M.A., 1976; Columbia University, M.F. A., 1984. Religion: Anglican.

ADDRESSES: Home and officeNew York, NY. Agent—Robin Straus, 224 E. 79th St., New York, NY 10021. E-mail[email protected]

CAREER: New School, New York, NY, instructor, 1995–2000; Bennington College, Bennington, VT, member of core faculty, 2000–06. Writer's Voice, instructor, 1991–99; Colgate University, writer in residence at Chenango Valley Conference, 1999, 2000; writer in residence at State University of New York College at Purchase, 1996, International Inkwell, Montolieu, 1997, Sarah Lawrence College, 1999–2001, and City College of the City University of New York, 2000–02; Columbia University, adjunct faculty member, 2006.

AWARDS, HONORS: O'Henry Award, 1988, for the story "The Mountain"; Open Voice Prize, 1991, for "Ambush"; Willa Cather Fiction Prize, 1998, for One Girl: A Novel in Stories; award from Smart Family Foundation, 2000, for "Underworld"; prize from Antioch Review, 2004.

WRITINGS:

The Perfect Place (novel), Knopf (New York, NY), 1989.

Miracles in America (short stories), Knopf (New York, NY), 1990.

The House on R. Street: A Novel, Knopf (New York, NY), 1994.

One Girl: A Novel in Stories, Helicon Nine (Kansas City, MO), 1999.

Cracks: A Novel, Zoland Books (Cambridge, MA), 1999.

Children of Pithiviers (novel), Zoland Books (Cambridge, MA), 2001.

Stories from Another World, Ontario Review Press (Princeton, NJ), 2001.

Crossways (novel), Ontario Review Press (Princeton, NJ), 2004.

Bluebird, or the Invention of Happiness, Other Press (New York, NY), 2007.

Also author of "The Mountain." Work represented in anthologies. Contributor of short stories, articles, and book reviews to periodicals, including Fiction, Ploughshares, Massachusetts Review, New Letters, Antioch Review, Yale Review, Paris Review, Oprah, Salmagundi, and Quarterly.

SIDELIGHTS: Sheila Kohler's fiction is filled with the perspectives of individuals caught in the grasp of abuse, corruption, and perversity. Much of the author's work is set in South Africa. The novel The Perfect Place is the story of a wealthy, middle-aged woman who prides herself on her emotional distance from others. She is eventually forced to relive certain repressed memories when she takes a lover who questions her about a former schoolmate of hers in South Africa. The resultant revelations of incest, homosexual jealousies, and murder are told with a voice that "presents a disturbed mind trying to forget experience and deny emotion," wrote Washington Post Book World contributor Barbara Fisher Williamson, who also called the novel's narrator "one of the most repellent voices in recent fiction." Sue Roe in the Times Literary Supplement described The Perfect Place as "elegantly disturbing…. The language of [the novel] yields beautifully to the constraints and expansions of its theme, becoming progressively more lyrical—and more gripping—as the truth emerges."

Miracles in America, a collection of short stories, focuses on many of the same themes as her debut novel. The characters in these works are surrounded with material wealth, but they are unsatisfied with themselves, usually due to the psychological scars of childhood abuse. In what would appear to be the sheltered world of the wealthy, Kohler shows her characters tormented by physical and psychological violence. Such violence surfaces in indirect and unexpected ways, such as through memories or within the context of sexual relationships. In "Absence," for example, a woman receiving a massage recalls events of a brutal murder, and the story "Permutations" presents the violence of psychosexual bondage. The concept of hidden emotions slowly corrupting the characters' lives is mirrored in Kohler's storytelling technique: the author releases to the reader select pieces of vital plot detail, often withholding the final "truth" of what actually happens in the story. Roe stated in her Times Literary Supplement review of Miracles in America that "the narrative offers possible leads but leaves them undeciphered." The reviewer observed that Kohler's "victims of corruption are themselves corrupt and confused, so that trying to deduce what has actually happened to them is like reading a detective story."

The House on R. Street: A Novel continues Kohler's exploration of family dysfunction and warped sexuality, this time in a setting of 1920s-era South Africa. The central character, an adolescent girl named Bill, dispenses sexual favors to older men while herself becoming obsessed with a Rudolph Valentino silent film. According to New York Times Book Review correspondent Patrick McGrath, the novel's focus rests upon "the perverse warps in Bill, the question of how she came by them and, more urgent, where they will take her: for an aura of impending horror seems to cling to Bill, a feeling that this unsettling, sad creature is heading for some terrible final disaster, perhaps at the hands of a stranger in a park." McGrath styled the novel as "dreamy, shimmering and densely erotic," concluding: "Sheila Kohler has achieved in this short novel a remarkable atmosphere, a fine, delicate fusion of period, society and climate, and breathed into it a family of figures obscured by the glare of that atmosphere; then singled out from that family a girl who expresses the skewed tensions of its dynamic. To her she has given this strange story of a sexual ripening touched with rot."

Kohler won the 1998 Willa Cather Fiction Prize for her work One Girl: A Novel in Stories. Divided into stages of life, from birth to death, the story collection conjures its characters through the use of recurring images and unresolved plot lines. In the New York Times Book Review, Sarah Saffian noted: "Kohler's descriptions sing in their lyrical precision; at turns crisp and languid, they are always sensual, and often sexual." A Publishers Weekly reviewer likewise noted that Kohler's "lush language belies a sense of menace," adding that the characters' deliberate distance from the reader "hints at a wealth of experience, a common unhappiness that unifies the collection."

The novel Cracks expands upon one of the stories in One Girl. Set in a South African boarding school, the tale—recounted in flashback by characters including a "Sheila Kohler"—reveals a desperate level of violence and guilt among former classmates vying for supremacy on a swim team. The collective narrators, now in middle age, reunite to save their old school from demolition, but in the process they begin to recall some of their sinister exploits while under the spell of Miss G., their dynamic swimming coach. A Publishers Weekly contributor observed: "The curt 'we' and Kohler's clipped, effective descriptions generate an abiding sense of myth, collective experience and collective guilt…. The result is a narrative at once powerful and hollow, an extremely well-made technical experiment."

Crossways is the name of a fictional family home in South Africa, where things are not always as they seem and unlikely juxtapositions keep the reader somewhat off balance. In the novel Crossways Kate Kempden is a product of the South African privileged class who fled her homeland for Paris in the 1970s in pursuit of a career. Her sister Marion is an apparently contented wife and mother who stayed in Crossways to raise a family. Marion's husband Louis, now a respected heart surgeon, was not a child of privilege, but an Afrikaner (of Dutch heritage, rather than British) who pushed his way out of poverty, carrying with him the emotional baggage of a troubled past. When Marion is killed in a violent auto crash, with Louis at the wheel, Kate returns to Crossways to offer support to the injured surgeon and his children. Immediately she begins to sense dark waters beneath the surface of an apparently idyllic family scene; the longer she stays in town, the murkier and more malevolent the waters seem. As in previous works, Kohler writes of violence, abuse, and sexual dysfunction; in Crossways she adds elements of child abuse and possible murder. Hazel Rochman observed in her Booklist review that Crossways "brings close the harsh class conflicts among whites at the height of apartheid." A Kirkus Reviews contributor called the novel "a marvelous portrait of the inner lives of two people [Kate and Marion] trapped in an alien world they'd supposed to be their home."

Sheila Kohler once told CA: "I believe the desire to write came to me first when an aunt of mine read me the beginning of Jane Eyre. I must have been about seven and my father had just died. The description of little Jane shut up in the Red Room made a tremendous impression on me and I wanted to do something similar.

"All the great writers have influenced me. It is hard for me to single out one influence or the other—certainly the nineteenth century English authors were my first love…. Then I read the great Russians and then the French. At a particular moment in my life one or the other writer has influenced me more than another. Hard to point to any particular one.

"I write almost every day. It is my joy. I write on a computer and endlessly revise and correct as I go along. I keep reading and teaching and learning as much as I can.

"I hope with my books, to use one of Nabokov's phrases, to entertain, to instruct and to inspire, to lift the reader out of his or her mundane existence and yet … to convey life with all its complexity on the page."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

PERIODICALS

Booklist, September 15, 2004, Hazel Rochman, review of Crossways, p. 208.

Kirkus Reviews, February 15, 1994, review of The House on R. Street, p. 165; August 15, 2004, review of Crossways, p. 767.

Library Journal, March 1, 1989, Ellen R. Cohen, review of The Perfect Place, p. 88; February 1, 1990, Ellen R. Cohen, review of Miracles in America, p. 108; April 1, 1994, Joanna M. Burkhardt, review of The House on R. Street, p. 132.

Los Angeles Times, March 5, 1989, review of The Perfect Place, p. 4; July 8, 1990, review of Miracles in America, p. 6.

New York Times Book Review, September 3, 1989, Gail Pool, review of The Perfect Place, p. 14; September 16, 1990, Rebecca Singleton, review of Miracles in America, p. 22; May 22, 1994, Patrick McGrath, review of The House on R. Street, p. 18; November 21, 1999, Sarah Saffian, review of One Girl: A Novel in Stories, p. 74.

People, May 1, 1989, Ralph Novak, review of The Perfect Place, p. 35; June 18, 1990, Ralph Novak, review of Miracles in America, p. 31.

Publishers Weekly, January 20, 1989, Sylvia Steinberg, review of The Perfect Place, p. 136; April 13, 1990, review of Miracles in America, p. 56; March 21, 1994, review of The House on R. Street, p. 55; August 2, 1999, review of Cracks, p. 72; September 13, 1999, review of One Girl, p. 58; October 11, 2004, review of Crossways, p. 57.

San Francisco Chronicle, October 24, 2004, Carolyn Juris, review of Crossways.

Times Literary Supplement, June 8, 1990, Sue Roe, review of The Perfect Place, p. 617; February 22, 1991, Sue Roe, review of Miracles in America, p. 20.

Washington Post Book World, April 9, 1989, Barbara Fisher Williamson, review of The Perfect Place, p. 5.

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