Once We Were Sisters: A Memoir

Once We Were Sisters: A Memoir

ONE OF PEOPLE MAGAZINE'S BEST NEW BOOKS "A 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...

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Title:Once We Were Sisters: A Memoir
Author:Sheila Kohler
Rating:
ISBN:0143129295
Format Type:Paperback
Number of Pages:256 pages

Once We Were Sisters: A Memoir Reviews

  • Terri
    Mar 19, 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 ba

    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.

  • Kasa Cotugno
    Oct 30, 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 se

    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.

  • Amina
    Dec 05, 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 wer

    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.

  • Karen Whittard
    Nov 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

    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

  • Chris
    Jan 29, 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

    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.

  • Jill Meyer
    Jan 28, 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, incidenta

    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.

  • Toto
    Feb 06, 2017

    "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

    "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 impressionistic without being illuminating. She shows no deft understanding of the privileged life she lead and the void it helped deepen in her. She is barely aware of, at least in her writing, the social havoc going around her in South Africa (save for a paragraph); but we get full treatment of her travels in Europe, on family money, clothes, hair, narrow hips, more travels, more opportunities. Her deaf child barely registers. But we sure are informed that her (unearned) money contributes to the upkeep of her mother-in-law. The story goes back and forth in time and is irritating in repetition in what is already a thin register: how many times does the reader have to be told her mother had "tiny hands and feet" and how does that help us understand her? I counted at least three times in this slight book. And how many times do we need to be told that her "husband to be" (also an infelicitous repetition owing to her time travel in narrative) Michael and she look alike? Again, too many. An author succeeds, in my opinion, if she convinces you that she has more to tell you, and makes you eager to continue reading what she has to say. I'm afraid, after reading this I have no such desire. I think she has told all she can.

  • Jenny (Reading Envy)
    Mar 07, 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 so

    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.)

  • poingu
    Mar 04, 2017

    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

    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.

  • Jeanette
    Mar 08, 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

    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.