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Once We Were Sisters: A Memoir

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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 the news, she immediately flew back to the country where she was born, determined to find answers and forced to reckon with his history of violence and the lingering effects of their most unusual childhood--one marked by death and the misguided love of their mother.
In her signature spare and incisive prose, Sheila Kohler recounts the lives she and her sister led. Flashing back to their storybook childhood at the family estate, Crossways, Kohler tells of the death of her father when she and Maxine were girls, which led to the family abandoning their house and the girls being raised by their mother, at turns distant and suffocating. We follow them to the cloistered Anglican boarding school where they first learn of separation and later their studies in Rome and Paris where they plan grand lives for themselves--lives that are interrupted when both marry young and discover they have made poor choices. Kohler evokes the bond between sisters and shows how that bond changes but never breaks, even after death.
"A beautiful and disturbing memoir of a beloved sister who died at the age of thirty-nine in circumstances that strongly suggest murder. . . . Highly recommended." --Joyce Carol Oates

244 pages, Paperback

First published January 17, 2017

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About the author

Sheila Kohler

37 books149 followers
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 girls, she moved to the USA in 1981, and did an MFA in writing at Columbia.

In the summer of 1987, her first published story, “The Mountain,” came out in “The Quarterly” and received an O’Henry prize and was published in the O’Henry Prize Stories of 1988. It also became the first chapter in her first novel, "The Perfect Place," which was published by Knopf the next year.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 314 reviews
Profile Image for Jaidee.
583 reviews1,120 followers
December 20, 2020
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 husband in South Africa leaving six children behind.

The sisters' relationship is very close growing up and intermittent but loving as they grow older and live in different continents. Their upbringing though financially privileged is fraught with neglect along with a whole lot of unusual love and unique ideas in a white family with apartheid raging around them. They lose their dear father and they are left in the care of an addict mother who is more devoted to her odd sisters than her daughters. They are sent to finishing schools in Italy and left to tend to themselves where they develop a naivete that is almost hard to believe.

Both sisters marry philanderers but her sister's spouse is also sadistic and cruel. She makes her abuse known to everyone and although concerned nobody steps in over many years. This is so bloody sad and happens way too often.

Both sisters holiday together and at times seem to neglect their own children though they are fiercely loved. Both sisters take on lovers.

Ms. Kohler is very courageous in describing with honesty her life story thus far and she writes beautifully, evocatively, simply and succinctly. There are so many gaps and you wonder how much her traumas and griefs contribute to the opaqueness, the unsettled vagueness, the deep pain paired with an appreciation of beauty that is sublime.

Financial and racial privilege are not full protectors to extreme sadness and injustices but they do make the happier times much easier and rich. It also provides a voice that is more likely to be heard. This is not at all to detract from the tragedy of the story but simply a thought and observation.

We leave our husbands and even the children who are born by then (six of them at this point, if I remember rightly) without too many qualms. We are in search of the art I am now studying at the Ecole du Louvre.
We are happy to look at life on our own, to see the world as we did our garden as children, through the prism of our own imaginations or those of the artists we admire. We are eager to grasp at least an ephemeral illusion of freedom. We are happy to be together. The memory of these lost moments comes back to me now with all the ache of their vivid detail...

This memoir is tender and beautifully rendered.
Profile Image for Terri.
272 reviews
March 20, 2017
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 babies. That is where their lives go horribly wrong, both of them pick wrong men, and then struggle to save their marriages because of family pressure and their children. Unfortunately for Maxine, despite her wealth and education, she marries a controlling brute who makes her fear for her life. Driving with her husband one night, he hits a light pole, he survives and she does not. Was it murder? The author feels it was and becomes convinced that she just needs to make her family and others understand that it was deliberate.
The best part of this book for me was the author writing about their relationship. You can just feel the sister-love leap from the page but also sadly her guilt. She feels if only she had convinced Maxine to not go back to him that she would still be alive. I think that the novel is extremely well-done, poignant and heartbreaking, with no clear answers as to why these interesting women felt so compelled to stay, in unloving relationships, with their husbands. I feel this is a worthy book-club read and would recommend it. Four stars.
Profile Image for Jennifer.
1,730 reviews6,662 followers
April 8, 2017
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 grief, suspicion, and regret over her sister's domestic abuse victimization and eventual death. Her main coping mechanism to date has been writing.
"The only weapon left to me is to write about what has happened in fictional form. None of the family want the story told. Not his family, naturally. Not even my own. No one wants to tell the children what must have happened. For surely they, or at least the older ones, must know better than anyone else.... I've been writing in my head, telling stories to children, writing diaries, reading and remembering all my life. But it's not before the death of my sister that I actually sit down and write a complete novel. I'm determined to keep her alive on the page. Here, I can give her the revenge she would have wanted to have. I can control her destiny."
Once We Were Sisters was both emotional and educational. You can feel Ms. Kohler's love for her sister and her residual anger that will likely never end. This account is based on Ms. Kohler's perspective and memories alone. "Murder" has not been legally investigated and is still an allegation to date. No matter what happened, it was and remains a tragedy. Once, Sheila and Maxine were sisters. Now Maxine is gone.

Photo Source: theguardian.com

If you see domestic abuse, speak up. If you experience domestic abuse, speak out. If you are the one who is handing out the abuse, just stop.

My favorite quote:
"How we hesitate to share our sorrows, proud and afraid of hurting one another!"
Profile Image for Lark Benobi.
Author 1 book1,864 followers
January 30, 2019
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 subjects in a way that began to feel haphazard and superficial. The bits and memories, shared here in brief chapters, never really added up to be something whole. The story begins with Kohler going to id her sister Maxine's body at the morgue after an accident; Kohler introduces the idea that it wasn't an accident but was murder. It's quite a setup. But then the story of Maxine's death gets dropped, except for small scenic hints, until very near the end of the book.

So on the whole, a little aggravating.
Profile Image for Christine.
6,618 reviews478 followers
February 7, 2017
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 was going to buy the book anyway, and the other is that self help books and I do not get along. I filled out the response survey and said that the same. I got a percentage off a renewal).

I can honesty say that I would not have picked up this book. And that would have been my lost.

Kohler's memoir is so much a memoir as a memoir mediation. She is trying, has been trying, to come to terms with her sister's death, possible murder, for years. Kohler and her sister were born into South Africa in the 40s/50s. In on sense, the book is, as Roxanne Gay would correctly note, a memoir about women in unhappy marriages. Yet, the book manages to transcend that. Perhaps it is because of the world we currently inhabit, perhaps it is because Kohler and her sister would been one of the last generations (if not the last) to be educated to be wives (or who went to college to get a husband), yet both sisters eventually fight against that. Instead of making the breaking/challenging of tradition the moral of story, Kohler allows read to make his or her own conclusions. In some ways, the book seems to be about Kohler's coming to terms with her guilt, over what happened to her sister, over apartheid, over not staying in fight apartheid. Whether or not the guilt is deserved is left up to ready and isn't really the question. Kohler like all of us is plagued by what if and should of.

And she is honest about it.
Profile Image for Jenny (Reading Envy).
3,876 reviews3,050 followers
March 8, 2017
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 society allowing apartheid that might perpetuate domestic abuse.) I was completely primed to be emotionally invested in this true story. I mean, I have a sister, two even, and I always worry about them and their choices and their safety.

But Sheila Kohler manages to turn me into someone uninterested in the story before the memoir is through. Part of it is her distance from the events, I think, and the way she navigates back and forth through time. In some ways it is probably similar to her memories and how everything connects in her head (or doesn't) but if it was that intentional I think I needed more work on her part to make connections for me. She has other major life events that get mentioned in passing. Near the end she starts listing all of her books where she has used her sister as inspiration for the characters, and that's when I think I figured it out - I think she thinks that if you are bothering to read this book, you already know her work, and she doesn't want to repeat herself. But she made the wrong assumption. I had no idea who she was, and I might have been a new reader of her work, except she did not successfully hold my attention in what could have been a thrilling and sad story.

(I do have to say that I very much enjoyed reading this with other people and discussing it, particularly since one is a South African! The richness of the experience was far more about them than the memoir itself.)
Profile Image for Kasa Cotugno.
2,356 reviews454 followers
October 31, 2016
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 secure in her own right, Sheila has lived her life internationally since she was 17. The fact that Maxine was killed in a car crash before her 40th birthday is given on the cover, in the blurbs, and on almost the first page. What is surprising and poignant is that this happened 35 years ago, and although she has written about her family, their secrets, her horrors at living under apartheid, Sheila has carried the regrets and sorrow all this time and now is writing their story on the other side of the veil of fiction. The book has a meandering quality, in that one recollection leads to another, and the story is told as a dreamy memoryscape. I hope she now finds some resolution and peace.
Profile Image for Amina.
1,256 reviews266 followers
December 5, 2016
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 were financially secure, travelled to a lot of different places, France, Italy, Greece, their personal lives weren’t a real success.
At 37, Sheila is told her sister passed away, when she gets home, she discovers the circumstances of her sister’s “accident”, Carl, Maxine’s husband was at the wheel, he survived, but Maxine didn’t.
Throughout her career, Sheila has only written about her sister’s death in a fictional way but in this memoir, she pours her heart and soul and tells us all about her life, her sister, the apartheid, her family, the deepest secrets of her being.
Sheila misses her sister, still regrets not helping her and feels guilty for not being able to protect her. After 35 years, Sheila still bears the scars of that loss.
Thanks to Netgalley, the author and the publisher for this early read.
Profile Image for Canadian Reader.
1,066 reviews27 followers
October 2, 2019
”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, Stanley Kunitz and Sylvia Plath. I am sure I’m oversimplifying—reading those dense, tangled academic texts laced with psychoanalytic jargon wasn’t for me— but I believe the crux of his theory was that writing allowed the poet to process, work through, and repair a deep psychic wound.

Towards the end of her memoir about her sister, Sheila Kohler explains that while she always aspired to being a writer, it was her sister’s tragic death at the age of 39 that prompted her to begin the real work of writing. Kohler explains that some aspect of Maxine’s story or personality has figured in every novel she subsequently wrote. For Kohler, like the aforementioned poets, writing afforded not only creative expression but movement towards psychological repair. Writing, she says became her pleasure, her passion, her obsession, her constant companion—“a means of both escaping and exploring my own mind and heart. It is an attempt to answer the questions that continue to perplex and trouble me. Above all, it is a way to hold those I have loved and lost in my mind and in my heart of hearts.”

Not having read any of her novels, I can’t tease out or comment on the connections between her and Maxine’s intertwined real-life stories and the fictional worlds the younger sibling ultimately created. However, I can understand how the loss of the sister with whom Kohler shared so much—a privileged upbringing with “an army of servants” in apartheid, white South Africa; whimsical games and childhood pranks; the death of their business-empire-owning father when both were still very young; boarding and finishing school experiences, and marriages to men their mother called bloodsuckers and vultures—could shatter a person, how it could almost feel like a part of oneself had been cut away.

While it is true that the sisters each married men who would drain their emotional and considerable financial resources (the two had inherited a fortune that would make for a comfortable, even lavish, material existence), the marriages were, in fact, very different. It may not be quite accurate to say Sheila “got the better deal,” but at least she got to live and tell the tale. Maxine did not. Sheila married a handsome young student of French literature (often mistaken for her twin) whom she’d met in Rome and for whom she felt remarkably little physical passion. Three daughters and several infidelities later, she divorced him. Maxine married a slim, attractive tennis player. Raised in a strict Afrikaner household, Carl had been a precocious, gifted student. Mentored by famous heart-transplant surgeon Christiaan Barnard, Carl had then gone on to distinguish himself as a respected heart surgeon in his own right while still in his twenties. Accomplished, clever, and disciplined, Carl was blond on the outside, and all darkness within. He had, as they say, “inner demons.”

Kohler doesn’t take long to tell what those demons were capable of. In the first pages of her memoir, she reveals that Maxine was killed by her husband in a car accident that he — in no surprise to Maxine’s mother and sister— survived. Apparently, Carl had deliberately driven the car off the road into a lamp post in such a manner that only Maxine, the passenger, a mother of six children, was killed.

Once We Were Sisters proceeds at a brisk clip in short, loosely chronological chapters of cool, crystalline prose. Now at some remove from her material, Kohler provides snippets of the story of her and Maxine’s childhood, youth, and married life, occasionally noting that the two girls were so close she isn’t sure if the memories are hers or Maxine’s. Every now and again, Kohler writes of the intimations, the flashes of awareness, even the stark warnings she was given that Maxine and her children were in grave danger with Carl. What, exactly, that danger consisted of is revealed in the course of this short book. Guilt over her inaction is something Kohler has had to carry these many years. One wonders if writing this memoir has brought her any peace.

Rating: 3.5 stars rounded up to 4
Profile Image for Jeanette.
3,277 reviews559 followers
March 8, 2017
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 almost as we read different books? Except for the childhood portions at the beginning- and even there too at certain points, this book was like a rich girl whine. But it seems that's not what others hear?

If any portion of this deep connection was meaningful- she would have SEEN her sister. Both certainly could afford to go anywhere at any time- and BOTH did not seem at all impacted by their OWN children to deny themselves any purpose they presently desired. Be it years and years of schooling or travel- she could have fit her sister in their somewhere.

Woulda if I coulda story? That's what my own Mother would have called it.

In this last century of changing mores, it does not enhance an author, not for me, to bemoan the circumstances of their choices on their parents or the "culture" of their young times. ANY of their choices. And none more than these kind of "poor me little rich girl alone with only my servant" stories. I know others feel differently. They DID what they WANTED to do at the time they did it.

There are millions who never saw their Mother again when they got on a boat the size of a mansion's drawing room to cross an ocean with only the clothes on their backs to take with them. Same time period too.

Sheila Kohler should stick to fiction. And if she wants to roam into this kind of copy she should have some proof to back her own opinions up. Especially since she herself doesn't witness. Yes, I know this is harsh. It could have been much harsher. She has Psychology degrees and the knowledge to know better than this.
Profile Image for Jill Meyer.
1,170 reviews106 followers
February 10, 2017
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, incidentally, a husband each for Sheila and Maxine. The marriages of both women were terrible, with infidelity and physical abuse. Maxine was killed in a car accident that may have been caused by her husband. Why did the marriages last as long as they did?

Sheila Kohler, who has written many novels, writes a story of two sisters given much materially but little in the way of affection or care. Both had children with their husbands - Sheila had three and Maxine had six - but their lives, couched by privilege, seemed to be lived at a remove from reality. The women went rushing from houses in South Africa to New York City to Paris and Rome, trailed by their children, all the while supporting their husbands, who cheated on them. Why, oh why, did neither woman say, "out" to their philandering spouses? Why, indeed, did these women drift through life, until one's husband caused her death? Why did they put up with a selfish, self-absorbed mother?

Kohler writes in a sober style, sometimes in the present-tense, sometimes in the past, and without the emotion that such a story might well invoke. I know Sheila adored Maxine, but I know that because I was told it. Here's the thing, I'd expect this dispassion from someone writing a biography of a subject, but not from a memoirist. By the end of the book, after her sister is killed, her mother reaches her well-deserved end, and Sheila has found love at last, I didn't much care. And that's NOT the way a memoir should end.
Profile Image for Maggie.
193 reviews
March 19, 2017
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 was wrong with our family?Was it our mother? Our father? Was it our nature, the way we were made, our genes, what we had inherited? Or more terrible still, is there no answer to such a question? Was it just chance, fate, our stars, our destiny? It was not as if we did not see this coming. What had held us back from taking action, from hiring a bodyguard for her? Was it the misogyny inherent in the colonial and racist society in the South Africa of the time? Was it the Anglican Church school where she and I prayed daily that we might forgive even the most egregious sin? Was it the way women were considered in South Africa and in the world at large? I am still looking for the answers….”

Well, we get no answers. This memoir is a beautifully written, wispy, ephemeral musing on the lives of both herself and her sister, daughters of fabulously wealthy South Africans. Sheila was born in 1941; her sister Maxine was born in 1939. They grew up amid great luxury, with “armies of servants” tending to every aspect of the estate. Their father seemed to be virtually invisible, always at work on his vast lumber holdings. (He died of a heart attack at 61, when the girls were 8 and 10.) Their mother surrounded herself with alcohol, medications, and a retinue of her relatives, who depended on her largesse for the rest of their lives.

The little girls were cared for by lazily selected nannies and spent their time racing around the tended parts of the garden and estate, dressed in dainty smocked dresses, living in the nursery with their nanny. Their early education was desultory at best: what did a wealthy white South African girl need to know except manners and social graces? At one point, when the girls were 7 and 9, their parents left them for a year and a half while they sailed around the world looking at lumber prospects.

Interspersed among the childhood tales are chapters from their young adult lives. As close as the sisters were, it seems as though once Sheila left South Africa at age 17, most of their contact occurred during their frequent visits to various European resorts and cities.

The whole things is decorated with ethereal descriptions of flowers and café au laits at elegant sidewalk bistros, draped in delicate sugar spun confections and beautiful sunsets and pleated mauve gowns (Maxine wore one when she was presented to Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip during their South African visit - Philip looked bored and tried to peer down everyone’s bodice) and magical flower garlands and imaginative sisterly games and fairy tales…and yet it’s a horror story of racism, misogyny, parental neglect, ruinous end-of-empire debris: something monstrous and ugly that roams and lurks throughout. Maxine and Sheila are like precious, radiant little Eloi, and the Morlocks are always out there. They know it; they’ve seen the Morlocks; they’ve married them. Hell, they were birthed by Morlocks.

Both marry young - Shelia is pregnant for her wedding. Both have numerous suitors and a myriad of warnings that the men they choose will not be good for them. But this was the early 60s, and I get that in their insular wealthy South African aristocracy, they were neither taught nor encouraged to do anything much more than to go along.

By the way, the misty watercolor memory style left me surprised when I googled Sheila Kohler (I was not familiar with any of her novels) and discovered (via Wikipedia) her enormously impressive CV:

Sheila Kohler was born November 13, 1941 in Johannesburg, and educated at St. Andrew's School for Girls where she matriculated in 1958 with a distinction in History. She then moved to Europe and spent 15 years in Paris where she married and completed an undergraduate degree in Literature at The Sorbonne (1973) and a graduate degree in Psychology from Institut Catholique (1976). She moved to the United States in 1981 and obtained an MFA from Columbia University (1984). From 1995 to 2000 she taught at The New School, and between 2000 and 2006 at Bennington College. She now teaches at Princeton University and Columbia,writes a blog for Psychology Today, and lives in New York City, and Amagansett.

Kohler is an extremely motivated, determined, and successful scholar and writer, and frankly, with the air of helplessness that suffuses this memoir, I was surprised at her truly impressive accomplishments.

So why don’t I like this memoir? I think it is a distortion - not a lie, not necessarily a willful contrivance - but a flawed attempt to assuage her childhood pain and her guilt at not having made a serious attempt to save her sister. The entire family knew early on that Maxine’s husband beat her mercilessly. She talked about it with Sheila on numerous occasions. He also beat their six children, and although Sheila hedges on whether she knew (she mentions that her nephew told her years later) it seems pretty damn clear that everyone knew.

Women in abusive relationships often stay for many reasons, and I cannot judge Maxine. Money wasn’t a reason: she had the wealth and handled all the finances while her husband worked - he was a noted, respected heart surgeon. But frequently the factor that motivates some abused women to take steps - kick him out, take the kids and run, shoot him like Charlize Theron’s mom did - is when the husband aims the abuse at the children. There’s no way of knowing why Maxine did not. Forty years later, Sheila asks herself why she (Sheila) didn’t do more. But she cannot or will not answer. At one point, several years before Maxine’s death, they are meeting in some Mediterranean city (Maxine and Sheila both travel frequently, leaving their young children at home) and Sheila exclaims, ridiculously: “Maxine, if you won’t leave him, do something! At least take a lover!”

Maxine flies on to Turkey and in fact does “take a lover”. When she returns home, her husband has found out and makes a spectacular suicide attempt, slashing his wrists. Maxine and one of her long-time African employees, John, realizing he might bleed out, wrap him up and race him to the hospital, saving his life. Subsequently her husband returns home and proceeds to harangue her as a whore and a slut, in front of their children.

Kohler also insists from the start that Maxine’s husband murdered her. The couple had left a party in South Africa, climbed into the silver convertible Maxine’s mother had given them as a wedding present, and somewhere between the party site and home, he drove them off the road and into a signpost. He survived, she did not. He was wearing his seat belt, and she was not, even though Sheila knows Maxine was very diligent about wearing her seat belts. (Did 1960s convertibles even have seatbelts?) Maxine’s wrists and ankles were shattered. “She died instantly,” mother intones, although Sheila agonizes over whether that’s true. No mention is ever made of a post-mortem or autopsy or accident report, even though one might ask whether ankle and wrist fractures aren’t sometimes survivable. Sheila flies immediately to South Africa and tries to get more information and to instigate some criminal or legal action against her sister’s husband, to no avail. She is enraged to think he is getting off “scot-free”. (In fact, he was rather severely injured in the crash, suffering head injuries which appear to have prevented him from performing surgeries thereafter.) The incident is regarded as a tragic accident. Frankly, I suspect it was, or possibly it was a suicide/murder attempt, or maybe a drunk, stupid ass serial wife abuser started arguing with her or hitting her and lost control of the damn car.

That was the sad end to Maxine’s precious, squandered life. She was unable to save herself and her beloved sister couldn’t either. That this grief and guilt is wrapped up into something that looks ethereal and dreamy bothers me. Had the book honestly dealt with the questions Kohler raised in her prologue, I’d have been grateful to read it.
Profile Image for Lynn.
256 reviews40 followers
April 4, 2017
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 attention throughout.
Profile Image for Sherry.
125 reviews53 followers
November 11, 2017
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 her stories from. This book is a tribute to a much loved sibling as well as an exploration of domestic violence, both physical and emotional. A serious read but an excellent one.
Profile Image for Star Forbis.
227 reviews32 followers
February 9, 2023
"A subterranean stream of Story runs parallel with Reality."

"Perhaps that is what growing up means: slowly realizing how right your mother has been."

"Truth is stranger than invention."

Why is it that when we are young we feel old. And when we are old we feel young?"
Profile Image for Readings.
324 reviews63 followers
February 14, 2019
Años 50, Sudáfrica. ¿Qué importancia tiene el país? ¿Qué importancia tiene la época? Sabemos que lo que estamos leyendo ocurrió allí durante esos años. Pero, si no lo supiéramos, podríamos creer que ha ocurrido actualmente en cualquier país, en cualquier lugar. Los años han pasado pero los cambios han sido insignificantes. ¿Se está evolucionando? A veces considero que en realidad se está retrocediendo… ¡Qué triste!
Rabia, frustración, dolor y tristeza. Miles de preguntas sin respuesta invaden tu mente. En realidad deseas no responderlas, prefieres rehuir de ellas. ¿He hecho todo lo que estaba en mis manos? ¿He actuado correctamente? ¿Actuaría de la misma forma si volviera a ocurrir? ¿Volveré algún día a sentir paz en mi interior?

Sheila Kohler se abre en canal y plasma en este libro todos los sentimientos que tiene respecto a la muerte de su hermana. A través de continuos recuerdos vamos conociendo su relación desde la infancia. Les vamos cogiendo cariño, les queremos abrazar, les queremos dar todo el amor que les falta. Sonreímos pero siempre con un regusto amargo. Sabemos cómo ha terminado todo. Le han arrebatado a su hermana, a su mitad. Un desgraciado la ha asesinado.
Estamos ante una lectura que parece sencilla pero no lo es. En realidad es mucho más compleja de lo que nos creemos. Cuando se llega al punto final, todo el dolor viene de golpe. Te das cuenta de que has estado en tensión. La rabia te invade, quieres gritar, quieres llorar de impotencia. Esa rabia e impotencia dejan paso a la tristeza y las reflexiones agolpan tu mente. ¿Cómo podemos ser tan egoístas por naturaleza? ¿Por qué miramos para otro lado cuando algo no nos gusta? ¿Por qué no paramos de pensar solamente en nosotros y miramos más a nuestro entorno, a nuestros seres queridos?
‘Cuando éramos hermanas’ es una historia muy dura que deja poso. Una historia de violencia de género y de silencio. Una historia que deseas que sea ficción pero por desgracia no lo es. Fue real y sigue siendo real.
Profile Image for Julia.
85 reviews
June 2, 2019
I liked it but it was more the author’s autobiography than her sister’s story.
Profile Image for Penny (Literary Hoarders).
1,144 reviews133 followers
November 7, 2017
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 We Were Sisters , she explores their close bond, their upbringing, their fateful marriages and the immense loss she continues to live with 35 years after her sister's death. She also experiences great guilt - for why didn't she do anything to help her sister escape the hands of her abuser? Her sister Maxine left behind 6 children.
Profile Image for Debbie Robson.
Author 11 books130 followers
May 31, 2018
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 suffocating gentility of 1950s South Africa, the girls plan grand lives for themselves that will bring them out of the long shadow cast by their father’s death and their overbearing mother.”
The book is beautifully written - concise but gentle and evocative. It is obvious from the start that Maxine’s death still haunts her sister Sheila. At the end of chapter one she writes: “I am still looking for the answers.”
Once We Were Sisters switches between a get-together with the sisters after the birth of Sheila’s first baby and their childhood in South Africa. They live in an amazing house called Crossways with servants and extensive grounds. “An army of servants keeps up the estate. Servants roll the butter between wooden slats with serrated surfaces until it forms small balls that are placed in shell-shaped silver dishes; they polish the silver, the furniture, the floors; they cook the roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, the two green vegetables and the roast potatoes; they simmer the inferior boys meat (“boys” being how we refer to our adult male servants) into a delicious smelling stew; they stand in their thin white gloves, their soft silent sand-shoes, and starched suits, a bright sash going slantwise across their chests, as they move behind the Chippendale chairs to serve dinner; they go out into the back patio to stoke the coal fire.”
“Mother lives the lazy life of the privileged white woman in apartheid South Africa. She spends her mornings sipping tea, dressing up. She sallies forth in her flowered hat, gloves and high heels to visit friends or to shop in Rosebank, a suburb of Johannesburg. She spends our father’s hard-earned money. He, twenty years older than her, does not seem to mind, though from time to time he says, “Money does not go on trees,” and appears briefly in the evenings, going through the garden turning off taps.”
Against this world the sisters find their own paths. Sheila sets up home with Michael in the US and Maxine decides to marry the poor but highly skilled heart surgeon Carl in South Africa, despite receiving a phone call from an ex of his begging her not to marry him. The moment when Carl runs their car off the road deliberately killing Maxine is a moment that defines Sheila’s life, her guilt palpable throughout this short memoir. Towards the end of the book Kohler examines her writing life since the death of her sister - her quest to find answers. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Barbara Carter.
Author 10 books52 followers
January 19, 2021
I discovered this book through my local library, while searching through the eBooks in the memoir section. And I’m so glad I discovered this book!
I had never heard of this author before; through she has written numerous fictional books.
This memoir was published in 2017. It is a short read. The chapters moving back and forth through time, much like memory. Her words hypnotic.
It is a world so foreign from mine. A world of wealth. Of travel.
Kohler and her sister grew up as privileged white South Africans in Johannesburg, in the 1950s. Their father dies when they are young. And though there is no shortage of money it doesn’t seem to bring a lot of happiness to either of them.
Kohler came to writing after her sister’s death. In a way of keeping her sister alive on the page. In story after story, she writes that she conjured up her sister in various disguises. The stories always coloured by her own feelings of love and guilt. She writes that she comes closest to the actual events in a novel called Crossways.
Her writing was an attempt to answer the questions that perplexed and troubled her over the years.
It took her more than 35 years after her sister’ death to finally write this as a memoir instead of another work of fiction.
Many years before her sister’s death, Kohler learned of the domestic abuse her sister endured at the hands of her husband, the hands of a well-known heart surgeon, a protégé of Dr. Christiaan N. Barnard, the South African surgeon who performed the world's first human heart transplant in 1967.
At first it seemed shocking to me that such a man, a man of healing could be the total opposite at home—such a cruel man. But that is one of the important messages of this book: domestic abuse crosses all economic levels.
Kohler, of course, feels that she should or could have done more to save her sister who was 39 years old when she was killed, leaving behind six children, the youngest three years old.
Though it was suspected that her sister’s husband deliberately drove their car into a lamppost, the mother would not hire a lawyer or try to bring her son-in-law to justice for her daughter’s death.
The accident/alleged murder happened one night after her sister and husband left a party. He wearing his seatbelt. Her sister, not.
Kohler has been haunted by that moment in the dark when her sister put out her hands and feet to brace herself against the dashboard, breaking her wrists and ankles in the crash.
This book is about the twists and turns in life, the search for happiness and how we do the best we can with what we have available at the time.
Looking at other reviews of this book I notice that it’s either a strong like or dislike. I really liked this book, and I recommend it.

Profile Image for Clare Snow.
961 reviews97 followers
March 18, 2021
I read this for the Aussie Readers Autumn Challenge. I would have DNFed without that incentive.

I was interested in the story of her sister's death and the difficulties of memory in writing memoir. The writing let me down. Like salt on chips, I never thought there could be too much alliteration - now I know. I don't know if this was intended, but repeating the same sentence three times in one paragraph is three times too many for me. And how many times did we need to hear that hubby-to-be knocked on her door in Italy.

The narration by the author was a mistake. There's a good reason we have voice actors. Perhaps I would have enjoyed it more if I hadn't listened to the audio book.
Profile Image for Lesley Moseley.
Author 7 books31 followers
April 30, 2020
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 written, beautifully, paced and loving tribute to her sister, is a jewel.
Profile Image for Justkeepreading.
1,854 reviews73 followers
November 30, 2016
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 be an extremely popular author from the age of 17. Sheila moved from South Africa and lived an international life.

Sheila and Maxine both married. But neither marriages were perfect and were very rocky.

When Sheila gets the call that her 37 year old sister has died. Sheila rushes home to be with her family and to discover what has happened.

Once there she discovers Maxine's husband drove the car they both travelled in over a cliff. Killing them both. He was a nasty piece of work and was violent. Sheila is rocked by the news and as we all would do questioned why she never did more to help her sister when she was alive.

Sheila has lived with the secrets of their childhood and adulthood and the demons that come with it for a long long time. Now she wants to lay it all down to the world and I hope it gives her some peace.

This book is a touching, honest heartbreaking read.

Happy reading everyone
Profile Image for Sugarpuss O'Shea.
353 reviews
June 23, 2017
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. It is reassuring to know I am not alone in my grief. I understand the want for revenge; How desperately you fight to keep your sister's memory alive & close to you; The frustration of having so many questions that can never be answered; The feeling of inadequacy for not protecting her.... Again, many thanks for sharing such a painful event in your live.
Profile Image for Shan ~A~.
2,301 reviews56 followers
October 5, 2020
The back and forth between the time of their youth to the time of their adulthood was a bit confusing. It didn't seem like there was much segue, just all of a sudden there would be a change.

There were also times that I felt like the story was more fiction than truth. I guess that is because I'm a fact checker at heart, and I was unable to find out any info about Sheila's husband or her sister's husband since no last names were given. Not that she has a reason to fabricate anything that took place in their lives, and maybe I wasn't looking in the right place.

Either way the main thing is that this story was sad. This woman who deeply loved and looked up to her older sister lost her in such a tragic way. All while dealing with lies and infidelity in her own life.

I guess the saying "truth is stranger than fiction" is a saying for a reason.
Profile Image for Michele.
59 reviews
June 8, 2017
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.
Profile Image for Renee.
1,504 reviews22 followers
October 6, 2017
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 too sparse for me. I wanted more; more explanation of how and why Maxine and her children could not escape the clutches of her abusive husband. The author briefly mentioned that he held the passports of the children, but was there not one official to intervene; especially with the families substantial wealth, and the husbands high position in the medical community.
Kohler is a beautiful writer and I will read more of her work but I felt so outraged of what was not done, and more so the inadequate explanation of why little was done that this book left me frustrated for both Kohler and her sister.
Profile Image for Cherise Wolas.
Author 3 books238 followers
December 17, 2017
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.
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