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ONCE WE WERE SISTERS by Sheila Kohler Kirkus Star


A Memoir

by Sheila Kohler

Pub Date: Jan. 17th, 2017
ISBN: 978-0-14-312929-5
Publisher: Penguin

Novelist Kohler (Dreaming for Freud, 2014, etc.) reflects on her beloved older sister, Maxine, who was tragically killed in a car accident at the age of 39.

In this intimate, exquisitely written memoir, the author’s first work of nonfiction, she explores the impenetrable bond that can exist between sisters. As the daughters of a wealthy white timber merchant, Sheila and Maxine enjoyed all of the privileges of living on a vast estate outside of Johannesburg in the postwar years under apartheid. Yet upon their father’s untimely death, their seemingly idyllic lives were disrupted as their domineering and impulsive mother abandoned their home and moved with the girls to various new settings. In chapters alternately moving back and forth in time, Kohler recalls pivotal moments throughout their lives: their experiences living on the family estate, being shuttled off to an Anglican boarding school, and their glamorous travels to European cities together as young women, travels that unfortunately led to their early and regrettable decisions to marry. Eventually, raising their families in different cities, each was forced to confront unfaithful husbands—in Maxine’s case, an increasingly violent man who would become responsible for her death. Through these shifts of time and with an expanding consciousness, Kohler subtly seeks to unravel secrets that emerge within each individual. Maxine’s life and the mysterious circumstances surrounding her death serve as a touchstone and became a source of inspiration for the author’s writing. “In story after story,” writes Kohler, “I conjure up my sister in various disguises, as well as other figures from our past. Her bright image leads me onward like a candle in the night. Again and again in various forms and shapes I write her story, colored by my own feelings of love and guilt.”

In spare, delicate prose, Kohler brings a seasoned novelist’s skills to this deeply moving, compelling memoir.