BOOK REVIEW: Once We Were Sisters by Sheila Kohler

The Blurb (from Goodreads):

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.


My Thoughts:

Sheila Kohler is a South-African-born author best known for her novel Cracks, inspired by her experiences as a girl in a boarding school in the remote African veld which was turned into a movie a few years ago starring Eva Green. She has written that her novel was partly inspired by her long obsession with the theme of violence in intimate relationships, caused by the death of her sister after her brutal, controlling brother-in-law drove their car off the road. 


Once We Were Sisters is Sheila Kohler’s memoir of her privileged childhood growing up in apartheid South Africa, the traumatic death of her father and consequent banishment to boarding school with her older sister Maxine, and her escape from the claustrophobic family atmosphere to Paris, university, and sexual freedom. 


At the centre of the memoir is her close bond with her sister, who stayed behind in Johannesburg to marry and raise a family. Sheila Kohler writes of their narcissistic alcoholic mother, their struggles to balance freedom and family, and Sheila’s growing fear for her sister who has become trapped in a brutal marriage. The writing is direct and incisive, constantly circling back to Maxine’s tragic and mysterious death, and the shock waves it sends through Sheila’s life. 

You might also like my review of Eggshell Skull by Bri Lee:…skull-by-bri-lee



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Kate Forsyth
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