Book Review: 'Once We Were Sisters'

Jan 9, 2017

Sheila Kohler has released her 14th book, entitled Once We Were Sisters. Told mostly in the collective “we,” Kohler takes an intimate look at the unassailable bonds of sisterhood. Sheila May and Maxine’s affluent and charmed early years are spent at Crossways, an estate in the suburbs of Johannesburg, supported by an army of servants. After the death of their timber magnate father, the pre-teen girls move with their family into a boarding house, under the care of their unstable and overbearing mother. They are sent to a girls boarding school, then finishing school, setting them up to marry well. Both do marry, but have made poor choices. 

The book opens with the tragic automobile accident that instantly kills Maxine at age 40. Maxine’s husband, a cutting-edge heart surgeon, was driving the car on a deserted road and crashed into the only lamppost for miles around. Not under the influence, and with no real explanation for why Carl suddenly lost control, the 38-year-old Sheila and others question the alleged accident. What follows is a spare and beautifully rendered memoir of childhood, sisterhood, and family life up to the time of the accident. 

On the surface, Kohler is examining the heartbreaking loss she experienced when her sister died 32 years ago, but she also ruminates on whether we are complicit in a tragedy if we ignore the ominous and do nothing to intervene. But toward the end, Kohler notes:

“To the voiceless, the muffled the frightened, the guilty, I attempt to give words.” Kohler looks deep into the human psyche, in an attempt to understand the torments of living with tragedy.  

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