Once We Were Sisters: A Memoir by Sheila Kohler

There’s a line in Sheila Kohler’s memoir, Once We Were Sisters, that is representative of much of her story – ‘As is so often the case, truth is crueller than fiction.’

Kohler begins with the terrible moment when she discovered that her sister, Maxine, had been killed. Maxine’s husband drove them off a deserted road in Johannesburg – he survived the crash, she did not.

From there, Kohler recalls the details of their childhood. Maxine and Sheila had a seemingly idyllic upbringing but when their wealthy father died, their mother abandoned the family estate and moved the girls from various cities, to boarding school, to the supervision of governesses for European summers. Although both girls were allowed freedoms that many would have envied, they were emotionally bound to their mother who vacillated between being distant and suffocating. As a result, both girls ‘escaped’ early, marrying young and starting their own families. Sheila made her home in America and Maxine remained in South Africa.

As the years progressed, Sheila came to understand that Maxine was in a physically and emotionally abusive marriage. Although Maxine’s death was the impetus for the book, Once We Were Sisters is very much Sheila’s story and she observes –

How perceptive we can be with other people’s problems but not our own.

Kohler is clear about the fact that writing is her catharsis and that up until this book, she wrote her story into her fiction. But for whatever reason, that was no longer enough and in Once We Were Sisters she presents the facts plainly. The book is not focused on Maxine’s marriage, but rather examines how emotional trauma can be felt through generations, reflecting on the loss of her own father and her mother’s behaviour following.

I found many elements of Kohler’s memoir engaging, however, I also felt she was holding something back. There was no raw moment, no piercing message, which made me wonder if in writing this same story so many times fictitiously, the visceral feelings associated with Maxine had been diluted. I almost feel like there’s another memoir in Kohler – unlikely to be published but one that will get to the core of what she truly wanted (but couldn’t) say.

3/5 A sad story.

Sheila’s mother drank a lot, and would often be heard saying to her sister “Would you get me the other half, Pie?” as she waved her whiskey glass in the air. Pair this book with an Old Fashioned.

2 responses

  1. Despite how romantic it looked at the time – as a teenager subject to his father’s rules – it seems to me now that children who are brought up well off but with too many freedoms are nearly always unhappy.

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