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Once We Were Sisters: A Memoir

3.45  ·  Rating details ·  1,947 ratings  ·  243 reviews
searing and intimate memoir about love turned deadly." --The BBC
"An intimate illumination of sisterhood and loss." --People

When Sheila Kohler was thirty-seven, she received the heart-stopping news that her sister Maxine, only two years older, was killed when her husband drove them off a deserted road in Johannesburg. Stunned by
Paperback, 244 pages
Published January 17th 2017 by Penguin Books
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Rebecca Possibly because their father died when they were young. It is said by those that work in behaviour that women who did not have a strong father figure…morePossibly because their father died when they were young. It is said by those that work in behaviour that women who did not have a strong father figure (either absent or a bad example) choose the wrong men because they haven’t had a good example to set their standards by. (less)

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Average rating 3.45  · 
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 ·  1,947 ratings  ·  243 reviews

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Apr 27, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: those that do not judge others grieving
Recommended to Jaidee by: a random but welcome choice
Shelves: five-stars-books
5 "tender, naive, upsetting" stars !!

6th Favorite Read of 2017 (tie)

First of all my deepest condolences to Ms. Kohler on her loss and the suffering of her dear beloved sister. I hope this memoir helped with the grief, pain and anger of a most unfortunate and unfair death.

I found this book terribly beautiful, terribly strange and savagely unfortunate. Ms. Kohler shifts through time and writes a tribute to her sweet sister who was physically and emotionally abused and ultimately killed by her
A painful yet loving memoir written by South African writer Sheila Kohler about the loss of her beloved older sister. Sheila and her sister Maxine were more than just sisters, they were best friends and both had survived a strange but privileged childhood. Their narcissistic mother was emotionally unavailable and their father was largely absent so they just had each other. Both sisters were beautiful and bright but were brought up to marry young, preferably to a wealthy man, and have lots of ba ...more
Once We Were Sisters is a memoir/biography written by Sheila Kohler about her relationship with her sister as well as her sister's tragic death via car accident/alleged murder. Ms. Kohler discusses the culture, social norms, and gender/race dynamics in her home country of South Africa. While these elements were interesting to explore on their own, watching the domino effect of how these factors play into family and relationship dynamics was equally insightful.

Ms. Kohler shared that she has much
Late last year, I joined My Book Box, a subscription box service that send you two books each month along with a couple other things (book marks, tea, soap, butterbeer candle, a poster). I signed up for the Mystery and Non-Fiction selections. The mystery selections have been good. Not outstanding, but not bad. The Non-Fiction selection have been outstanding. With the exception of two books, the non-fiction books have been books that I would not have otherwise picked up. (One exception is that I ...more
lark benobi
It began very promisingly. I could feel how much author Sheila Kohler loved her sister. Kohler did a wonderful job right up front, too, setting out the strangeness of her childhood as the backdrop for her memoir. Soon the story derailed.

The memoir lacks, to me, a coherent thematic point of view--anything that might have given the story a spine. While the memoir promises to be a story of two sisters, it instead roams freely from chapter to chapter, touching upon many other autobiographical subje
Jenny (Reading Envy)
I was looking forward to this memoir about Sheila and her sister, who was killed by her husband. The story seems at first to be headed to a big climax - the life of privileged in South Africa, the fancy trips, the hints in the background of what was really going on. It is heartbreaking that even rich white people in the most privileged group living in South Africa can't prevent domestic abuse at such severe levels (but, I might argue, since the author fails to, that it is the same patriarchal so ...more
Dec 05, 2016 rated it really liked it
This was heart wrenching, a memoir about sisterhood, that bond that unites us to another human being, so that she becomes a whole part of you.
Sheila and Maxine had very privileged lives in Johannesburg, in a big estate, with servants and a nanny. Their father died when she and her sister were pretty young. With a self-centred mother and volture relatives, the girls had to figure out love and the world on their own.
Sheila chose to leave South Africa, Maxine stayed there. Even if the two girls wer
Kasa Cotugno
This is a hauntingly personal memoir written by a successful novelist who has mined this material over the course in her career. Sheila Kohler and her sister, Maxine, had an extraordinarily privileged childhood growing up in South Africa. Losing their father at an early age, they found their way themselves without much help from their self absorbed mother and selfish aunts. So it is not surprising that lacking loving guidance, they both made questionable marriages. Fortunate to be financially se ...more
”It is the dead, not the living, who make the longest demands.”—Antigone

When I was a student of literature at university one of the professors in the English department there made the intersection of literature and psychoanalysis his subject. He wrote books (none of which I’ve read) on “loss and symbolic repair” and noted that an inordinate number of poets had lost one (or both) parents at an early age. The list includes Donne, Coleridge, and Keats, and—in more modern times—Robert Frost, Sta
Mar 08, 2017 rated it it was ok
Shelves: abandoned
This is a memoir that is super short and for my reading seemed in 3/4ths of its copy so strangely detached that it could have been a police case report. The detachment was so evident and the entire went into such time and separate connoted tangents that it fails as a cohesive book, IMHO. Not as the title presupposes.

Others seem to feel differently. Reading a few of the reviews right now after I attempted to finish this book. (I didn't- it went on my abandoned shelf at about the 75% point.) It's
Feb 06, 2017 rated it did not like it
"I see myself from afar as in a film or a book, as I am to do so often in my life, a voice in my head, a secret sharer, recording my own existence," Kohler writes in this purportedly painful memoir that left me cold.

Part of the reason is this attitude: she approaches the telling of the story of her sister's death from a distance, too, which I suspect is born from the attitude toward her life. Which is a curious combination of lack of compassion and lack of analytic ability. It is impressionisti
Jill Meyer
Jan 28, 2017 rated it it was ok
South African-born author Sheila Kohler writes about her sister's death, and the deaths of others important to her, in her memoir, "Once We Were Sisters". Sheila and her sister Maxine were the children of a fabulously wealthy Johannesburg timber merchant who provided his wife and daughters with a beautiful home and an affluent lifestyle. The father died when the girls were young and they were raised by their mother and her family. Their family wealth bought houses and trips abroad and, incidenta ...more
Apr 01, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a memoir about twin-like sisters who grew up in South Africa to a manipulative mother who married above her station and their wealthy and distant father. They lived peripatetic lives: setting down roots or vacationing in Paris, Sardinia, Switzerland, and other exotic locals. However, not far below the surface, hover less palatable topics such as alcoholism, infidelity, wife beating, homoerotic desires, and the eventual death of one of the sisters. It is a quick read that held my attentio ...more
Nov 11, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Sheila Kohler's memoir was a fascinating look at her relationship with her sister and her subsequent guilt over her death. At the age of 39, her sister was killed in a car accident. Her abusive husband was driving and survived the accident. Kohler's description of her sister's marriage to this man made me cringe and also,like her I believe that murder would be the better description of the accident. I've read all of this author's novels and after reading her memoir I can see where she's derived ...more
I appreciate a vivid, thoughtful memoir. This one simply annoyed me.

ETA: It turns out I have more to say about this book. Here it is. I'm in the minority, for sure.

From the book’s moving prologue, I had high hopes for it. Writing about her sister’s death in a car crash at the age of 39 (an event that happened nearly forty years prior to the writing of this book, and an event she blames on her abusive brother-in-law), Sheila Kohler says
“ …How could we have failed to protect her from him? What wa
Penny (Literary Hoarders)
Huh, I thought this audiobook was much longer than it actually was! I just finished at lunch. A very good story - a sad one for sure but lovingly told. Sheila Kohler narrates this story about her older sister that was killed in a car accident. However, she's convinced it was intentional by her brother-in-law, her sister's husband. Carl was an abusive man, he beat his wife and his children and in what Sheila knows to be an intentional act, he crashed the car killing her beloved sister.

In Once W
Debbie Robson
May 31, 2018 rated it really liked it
It only happens about twice a year - that I find a book that I can’t stop reading. Generally I get excited about a title and start reading a book before I have finished others. (That’s why my currently reading list is horrendous). But the moment I started this memoir I didn’t read a single page of any of my other books.
The main reason of course is to find out how this awful event happened to the author’s sister. “Once We Were Sisters is the story of Maxine and Sheila Kohler. Growing up in the s
Lesley Moseley
Apr 29, 2020 rated it really liked it
Although Sheila grew up as 'upper class' and we were, at best, 'middle-class', but white, and therefor inherently privileged, our lives in South Africa were lived with mores such as 'what will the neighbours think', et al. I just loved this book, having lost my sister to supposedly suicide, and still feel 'thwarted', as I feel 'gaslighting' should have it's own cattegory. With the recent death of her husband, a type of releasing , has occurred. I feel so much empathy for Sheila, this well writte ...more
Karen Whittard
Nov 30, 2016 rated it liked it
Thank you to Netgalley, Cannongate books and Sheila Kohler for the opportunity to read this book for an honest review.

You can find my review on both Goodreads and Amazon. Under my name of Karen Whittard. On Goodreads from today and on Amazon on publication date.

This book tells the story of Sheila and her sister Maxine. Sheila and her sister Maxine grew up in Johannesburg. Their father died when they were young. They were brought up by their extremely selfish mother and aunts.

Sheila grew up to
Sugarpuss O'Shea
When Goodreads recommended this book for me, I wasn't sure if I could (or should) read it. You see, I too lost my sister when she was 39. There were just the 2 of us & we were also 2 years apart--the only difference is I am/was the older sister. She was also in abusive relationships & the last one resulted in her life being extinguished, in a hotel room.

There are plenty of reviews here on what the book is about, so there is no reason to add to them. I just wanted to say THANK YOU to Ms Kohler. I
Lucy Meeker
This was a great book. Very touching. Thank you to Penguin for the opportunity to read this book in advance.
Oct 06, 2017 rated it liked it
3.5 Stars
When the author was thirty-seven, she received devastating news that her sister Maxine, was killed when her husband drove them off a deserted road in Johannesburg. In sparse prose, Sheila Kohler recounts the lives she and her sister led.
I loved reading about Kohler's privileged childhood in South Africa, the servant who came closest to parenting her, her eccentric and distant mother, and mostly, her beloved sister Maxine.
So why only 3.5 stars? Perhaps the Kohler's signature style was to
Cherise Wolas
Dec 16, 2017 rated it really liked it
A lyrical and beautifully written memoir. There are many tantalizing events recalled, but then passed over, and I would have loved for them to be filled in and filled out. It is fascinating that although the author began writing young, her sister's death--sudden but perhaps not wholly unexpected--is a catalyst for her to begin to write seriously. As the author notes in the memoir, her sister appears in many of her fictional works, and I plan to read more of Kohler's work.
Apr 12, 2018 rated it it was ok
A lot of alliteration from anxious anchors!! One of my favourite lines from Albert Brooks in Broadcast News. This author also fond of alliteration ... and weirdly, rhyming.

Apr 05, 2017 rated it really liked it
I found this a powerful and compelling memoir but a curiously detached one. It tells the story of Maxine and Sheila Kohler, from their privileged but often difficult childhood in South Africa to Maxine’s untimely death – or perhaps murder – just before her 40th birthday. In this honest account Sheila seems to be trying to make sense of the tragedy and come to terms with her role in her sister’s death and to understand how it all went so badly wrong. I was absorbed by the book, not least because ...more
Patty Enrado
Jan 30, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Sheila Kohler is one of my favorite authors. I waited with great anticipation for the release of her memoir because in numerous interviews she had talked about how her sister's untimely and tragic death propelled much of her early work. She never went into detail, but you get some indication of what happened across her early novels. Her prose is elegant and beautiful, heartrending, and at the same time, she builds suspense and foreboding, making her novels page-turners. Her memoir was achingly b ...more
Sarah Nelson
Nov 19, 2019 rated it did not like it
This book started out promising. It started out being about her sister, as is advertised. Then it went willy-nilly. The timeline was all over the place & after about the 3rd chapter, it was no longer about her sister but became a labyrinth of the weird world inside her head. I did not find it well-written or interesting. It felt more like an unorganized autobiography than a memoir of her relationship with her sister. ...more
Oct 21, 2016 rated it it was amazing
I won this book as a Goodreads contestant. This book made me think about my own brother and my family. It is touching. I could feel Sheila Kohler's life in this book as she allows her sister to live through her other fictional works through this non-fiction work. I can tell she put her heart and soul into this book. It made me think of my life as a child up until my adult life now.
Jun 08, 2017 rated it did not like it
The smug and egocentric narrator, lacking in empathy or reflective skills, made this one of the most irritating books I've read. It's hard to see why it warranted such a comprehensive review in the Guardian.
Feb 27, 2017 rated it did not like it
Not what I was hoping for. I wanted more insight into the relationship between the two sisters and the grieving process. I
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Sheila Kohler was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, the younger of two girls. Upon matriculation at 17 from Saint Andrews, with a distinction in history (1958), she left the country for Europe. She lived for 15 years in Paris, where she married, did her undergraduate degree in literature at the Sorbonne, and a graduate degree in psychology at the Institut Catholique. After raising her three girl ...more

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