Picks and Pans Review: The Perfect Place

updated 05/01/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/01/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Sheila Kohler

Structured in a way that conjures up images of a very elegant striptease or someone eating an artichoke leaf by leaf, this first novel reveals itself in tantalizing, overlapping glimpses. It begins with the book's narrator, an idle, jaded woman, sitting on a hotel terrace in Switzerland. A man approaches her: "He said, I believe, after some preliminary excuses for the disturbance he was causing, 'Were you not related to Daisy Summers?' or perhaps 'You were a friend of Daisy Summers, it seems to me?' or something of that sort." The woman's answer is given over the next 140 pages in fits and starts, between casual descriptions of even more casual affairs and her attempts to occupy herself with a trip to Italy. That there is a mystery involved becomes clear quickly enough, but what Kohler appears to have in mind more than who-did-what-to-whom is examining the tortuous processes people will use to avoid confronting painful truths in their lives.

The result suggests literature as a form of psychotherapy. The woman (who is never named), at first denying knowledge of Daisy, gradually allows an inclination to the truth to invade her mind: "I wished only to terminate that sense of seeing too much, of hearing too much, reviewing a past that was of no interest to me. I desired not much more than forgetfulness. I wished only to regain my usual complacency." The woman's isolation becomes more and more fascinating, and Kohler's writing has a hypnotic, abstract allure. Recalling an incident from her girlhood in South Africa (also Kohler's birthplace), the woman says, "I was reading a book, but I sat up and watched. We watched, all of us watched, all the girls lounging lazily in the sun, stretched out across the lawn, all the girls sat up and watched, while the voice crooned across the garden." Qualities of light and shadows, heat and moisture, touch, invitations to sex (though never sex itself) are described and re-described, considered and reconsidered.

The ending contains a piece of drama, but this isn't a novel to read for its events. It is for those in a mood to contemplate the extent of human honesty and to ponder the question about how often we lie to ourselves. (Knopf, $15.95)

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