When Sheila Kohler was thirty-seven, she received the news that her sister Maxine, only two years older, was killed when her husband drove them off a deserted road in Johannesburg. Stunned, 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.
Kohler is brilliant at recreating the detail of this vanished colonial world, where the corridors are lined with prints of the Cries of London, and the food is the heavy English kind that raises a sweat in the African summer ... It is all like a flesh-creeping tale from ETA Hoffmann in which the women are automata and the men, unseen, pull the levers; and just as in a Hoffmann fairytale, there are hints of the uncanny under the surface ... Once We Were Sisters is haunted by the image of Maxine in the morgue, her body stiff, her face turned obediently upwards just as 'when, as children, we played the game of Doll.' Kohler’s brother-in-law died some years ago. This many-layered memoir, rich in texture and suggestion, executed with a novelist’s eye for oblique human suffering, is her devastating reckoning with the past.
The most poignant passages take place during childhood. The girls’ father, a ghost even before his untimely death, worked endlessly to satisfy their mother’s taste for luxury, which included an 18-month world tour, adults only. This abandonment did not apparently pain the sisters, accustomed to nannies. Their purest bond was to each other anyway ... It can be frustrating to read of South African lives so cut off from the reality of their country, but then again, Sheila remembers that race-based legislation was treated as a distasteful enigma during their youth ... In the end, this is a memoir of love, sorrow, sisterhood and privilege. It’s also a memoir of the limitations of such privilege — in particular, the inescapable tragedy of being born female in a patriarchal world, where all the money, beauty and breeding cannot protect you from a man who takes what he wants without consequence.
Kohler is a master of tension, and she has crafted a work that entices the reader not with the question of what’s going to happen — she reveals the circumstances of Maxine’s death in the prologue — but why ... This is painful territory, but Kohler refuses to shy away from even the most wrenching detail. She writes in short chapters, each scene fleeting but startling in its clarity, soon to be overtaken by another, and another. Sometimes her anguish spills onto the page, but for the most part she writes with a journalist’s detachment in the continuous present tense, as if the past is still alive and malleable ... With this powerful memoir, Sheila Kohler may not have managed to save her sister, but she has brought her back to life. I imagine her heart broke again and again in the course of the writing — but then, a broken heart can release compassion, not only for others, but also for oneself.