A Death Haunts Sheila Kohler’s ‘Once We Were Sisters’

Lee Polevoi


Once We Were Sisters: A Memoir

By Sheila Kohler


244 pages


What does it feel like to lose a beloved sibling and to believe that sibling’s husband is responsible for her death? This gnawing question lies at the heart of Once We Were Sisters, Sheila Kohler’s poignant, yet at times gossamer-thin memoir.


The facts are simple, though from the author’s perspective, much in dispute. In 1979, her beloved sister Maxine was killed in a terrible accident in Johannesburg, South Africa, when the car driven by her husband Carl, an esteemed heart surgeon, swerved off a road and struck a lamppost. Maxine took the full force of the impact and died on the scene, while her husband walked away mostly unharmed.


The official ruling was accidental death, though some 40 years later, Kohler still believes the actual cause was murder.


In her memoir’s opening pages, the reader is thrust into the awful reality of the incident’s aftermath:


“I stand waiting with my hands on the glass, looking into the bright, bare, empty room with the sloping floor made of reddish stone, which dips slightly in the center to provide drainage from the dissection table. Then they wheel her body in. I cannot touch her, hold her, comfort her. I cannot ever heal her. Her whole body is wrapped in a white sheet, only her flower-face tilted up toward me: the broad forehead, the small, dimpled chin, the slanting eyes, the waxy skin. It is my face, our face, the face of our common ancestors. It is the heart-shaped face she would turn up to me obediently when, as children, we played the game of Doll.”


As this excerpt demonstrates, Once We Were Sisters is told throughout in present tense—a trend now fashionable among memoirs, though one that comes with a double-edged sword.


Relating events that occurred a half-century or longer ago in present tense does convey a certain kind of urgent immediacy.  On the other hand, when the narrative jumps around in time from chapter from chapter—alternating between the aftermath of her sister’s death and the years they spent growing up together (and apart)—a certain lack of clarity may emerge.


When exactly did a particular event take place? At what point in their lives do we encounter various family members? What do they know—and don’t know—about each other’s circumstances?


Kohler does an excellent job of recreating the fairy-tale atmosphere of her childhood. The sisters are born into a white family of privilege and grow up in the 1940s and 1950s, rarely exposed to the harsher realities of life in South Africa. An “army of servants” maintains the vast estate called Crossways, preparing and serving dinners of “roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.” At one point, Kohler recalls standing outside with Maxine watching a gang of convicts tend to the family’s grounds: 


“My sister and I stand, holding hands, staring at the men in their striped shirts, their feet bare, digging with the evening light behind them. We listen as they sing in sad harmony before we are told not to stare, to move along, move along, girls.”


Kohler is equally adept at painting a portrait of her lovely, tortured mother, widowed early in life and forever consigned to making a pretense of normality for what’s left of the family. The sisters grow into adulthood, marry and beget strikingly large broods of children—though situated far apart, Sheila in Connecticut and elsewhere in the U.S., Maxine remaining behind in Johannesburg. They meet overseas at frequent intervals (France, Italy, Switzerland), both leading prosperous and, at least superficially happy lives.


But worrisome signs emerge. Maxine confesses that her husband beats her (and their children) and forces her to engage in loathsome sexual acts. In a reflection of earlier and very different times, Kohler and their mother fail to take these complaints seriously, urging Maxine to do what she can to repair the marriage, for the children’s sake. After her sister’s tragic death, Kohler is tortured by her past inaction and vows to somehow avenge the loss by pursuing the person she believes is intentionally responsible for this devastating loss.


Once We Were Sisters tells the story of a vanished world and of a sister’s belated attempt to right a grievous wrong. However, since answers are elusive—no irrefutable proof emerges about the crime in question—there are moments where the memoir feels very thin. Bland travelogues and other fairly lifeless prose crop up all too often: “We travel to England; to Scotland, where Carl is specializing in thoracic surgery; to Switzerland to ski. We go to Greece to visit the Greek temples,” and so on. These anemic passages dilute the book’s central question and make the reader impatient for something more concrete to happen.


Nevertheless, Sheila Kohler’s story is beautifully evocative and, especially in the portrayal of family dynamics, often very moving. The reader closes the book both saddened and enraged by what feels like an overwhelming travesty of justice.


Author Bio:


Lee Polevoi, Highbrow Magazine’s chief book critic, has just completed a novel, The Confessions of Gabriel Ash.  


For Highbrow Magazine

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Sheila Kohler; Google Images
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