There are so many things that I want in young adult fiction. I want more discussion about sexual abuse; I want more discuss about sexual predators. I want to see girls having healthy and supportive friendships with each other. I want to see people who are capable of compassion for individuals who are mentally ill. I want to see characters have more empathy for individuals who are abused. And I really want to see young adult novels leave behind the disgusting trend of glorifying unhealthy relationships.
Cracks by Sheila Kohler meets none of these standards, though it very well could have if only she had tried. In just 176 pages, this novel manages to be disgusting and uncomfortable, while only having a single good quality: the writing seeming more similar to a hivemind or cult, never knowing which of the characters is the protagonist but only knowing for sure who isn’t.
The book is essentially a story told in flashbacks about events that took place at an all-girls boarding school in South Africa. It details the girls’ relationship with a teacher (Miss G) and how the school seemed to change the moment a new student (Fiamma) arrived on campus. Many people compared it to Lord of the Flies, but I’m certain that those individuals never actually read that novel and see it purely as a book about a group of kids that turns against one and kills him. It was also compared to novels such Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie; I’ve never read those, so I can’t even begin to comment on the likeness (which I can only assume is just as incorrect as the one I do know).
There are many issues that I take with this book. Some are minor, such as the fact that she managed to write herself into the book as one of the weird cultish girls, making it confusing when you come across her full name and swear you’ve seen it before only to check the cover of the book. But the overwhelming majority of the issues I have are severe, and it largely focuses on one character: Miss G.
Throughout the entirety of the novel, there is never once an explanation for why the girls would ever be obsessed with Miss G. She is given absolutely zero redeeming qualities, and it’s just stated as a fact that all of the girls in the school are obsessed with their teacher; it’s just stated repeatedly that they would do anything for her or to receive her approval, and every girl wanted nothing more than to be on Miss G’s swim team.
The only hint about what could possibly be alluring about her is that she allows the girls to sit in her room after curfew and drink wine, which I cannot even consider being enough to warrant that kind of devotion from her students. Considering my full-time job is a teacher, I can safely say that allowing kids to break certain rules that I believed to be ridiculous has not really made them cling to me in that fashion; yes, they saw me in a more positive light, but they never once were willing to do anything for my affection and attention.
The protagonist girls, as the novel is narrated entirely in the pronoun ‘we’, glorify the rape and abuse that Fiamma receives from Miss G. They perceive Fiamma as being entirely cold toward Miss G, causing her to abuse them further; they pressure her to tolerate Miss G’s illicit affections because, for whatever reason, they want to be on the receiving end. The girls are not at all sympathetic to the abuse that Fiamma is receiving from her teacher. They’re envious of her in so many ways, even well into their adulthood. It’s completely unbelievable that none of them would have ever recognised the actions as being abusive, even upon later reflection. I find that troubling. What’s more, I find that it’s troubling that none of the other teachers even questioned what was going on before it was too late.
There is one exception: Fuzzie, a character who is later shown to have mental illness and/or cognitive disabilities. She’s described in some atrociously negative language. She’s described as being “always confused” as a teenager, coming from a family that has suicide and mental health issues, and having spent time in an asylum as an adult. None of her so-called friends are even remotely friendly to her, often making fun of her in most scenes.
The concept for this book could’ve been amazing if it utilised everything properly. Instead, it was a novel about how groups of catty girls can be just terrible and how everyone wants to be sexually assaulted by one of their teachers, so just deal with it. Rather than spending time on developing supportive relationships between the students and having just one person question what had happened as adults or later feeling guilty for their actions, Kohler wrote something that just was incredibly uncomfortable to read.