Synopses & Reviews
"A beautiful and disturbing memoir of a beloved sister who died at the age of thirty-nine in circumstances that strongly suggest murder.... Highly recommended." — Joyce Carol Oates
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 the news, 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 one marked by death and the misguided love of their mother.
In her signature spare and incisive prose, Sheila Kohler recounts the lives she and her sister led. Flashing back to their storybook childhood at the family estate, Crossways, Kohler tells of the death of her father when she and Maxine were girls, which led to the family abandoning their house and the girls being raised by their mother, at turns distant and suffocating. We follow them to the cloistered Anglican boarding school where they first learn of separation and later their studies in Rome and Paris where they plan grand lives for themselves lives that are interrupted when both marry young and discover they have made poor choices. Kohler evokes the bond between sisters and shows how that bond changes but never breaks, even after death.
"Throughout her literary career, Sheila Kohler has obsessively tried to find closure and justice for her sister’s untimely death and, finally, in this memoir she has succeeded in coming to terms with the tragedy by movingly recalling their childhood together and expressing her love for her sister." Lily Tuck, National Book Award-winning author of The Double Life of Liliane
"Young Sheila Kohler abandons the time-warp of 1950s South Africa and heads for Europe on a voyage of self-discovery. Her quest to find out what it is that she desires — a quest that will last decades and is recounted with the seriousness it deserves, lightened with touches of dry comedy — ends in the discovery that she is and has always been a writer. The most striking parts of this rich and poignant memoir — rich above all in sensual experience—reflect on the necessary cruelty of the writer’s art, sacrificing the truth of the world to the truth of fiction." J.M. Coetzee, author of Disgrace and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature
"Sheila Kohler has written a beautiful and disturbing memoir of a beloved sister who died at the age of thirty-nine in circumstances that strongly suggest murder. Like all of Sheila Kohler’s prose work, Once We Were Sisters reveals its story by degrees, amid a richly sensuous milieu of South African white privilege and repression. It is a tragic tale, with echoes of cultural sexism and misogyny, yet a triumphant story of a young woman’s liberation from this culture and her emergence as a writer. Highly recommended." Joyce Carol Oates, National Book Award-winning author of Them
"In this intimate, exquisitely written memoir, the author’s first work of nonfiction, she explores the impenetrable bond that can exist between sisters.... In spare, delicate prose, Kohler brings a seasoned novelist’s skills to this deeply moving, compelling memoir." Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)
About the Author
Sheila Kohler is the author of six previous novels, including Crossways, The Perfect Place, Cracks, and Children of Pithiviers (all available in Other Press editions). A native of South Africa, she makes her home in New York City and teaches at Bennington College in Vermont.