At first glance, life seems idyllic for golden-haired sisters Sheila and Maxine, daughters of privilege growing up in the 1940s and ’50s on a large estate near Johannesburg, South Africa. As Sheila Kohler notes in Once We Were Sisters, their family homestead was complete with “an army of servants,” swimming pool, tennis court and nine-hole golf course. While leaning on each other for love, laughter and support, the sisters studied in France, went to finishing school in Italy, married, bought homes in several countries and had children.
Sheila’s world was shattered in 1979 when Maxine, mother of six children, was killed in a car accident at age 39. Maxine’s husband Carl, a protégé of famed heart surgeon Christiaan Barnard, had driven their car off a deserted road and into a lamppost. Kohler believes the act was murder.
Maxine had confessed repeatedly that her husband beat her “Black-and-blue!” and during a visit in Sardinia, admitted that she was afraid to go home. To her eternal regret, Sheila advised her sister to return to her children.
Maxine’s death propelled Sheila into a life of writing: an MFA at Columbia followed by award-winning short stories, nine novels and her riveting new memoir.
“In story after story,” Kohler writes, “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.”
Kohler is a thoughtful, lyrical writer who shares memories of her colorful life in artfully arranged chapters that intersperse past and present in careful layers, exploring myriad family secrets hidden beneath a gilded, guarded exterior. Her soul-searching memoir remains skillfully lean while evoking lush images of life with her beloved sister. Throughout the narrative, Kohler ponders her sister’s fate, asking tough questions and concluding, “I am still looking for the answers.”