Once We Were Sisters
by Sheila Kohler
Penguin Books

In her novels and short stories, Sheila Kohler reimagines her elder sister, Maxine, as different characters – the foreigner with the Botticelli face; the girl who lives with her three maiden aunts in a clifftop house; the woman who has lost a sister and then runs over the brother-in-law who killed that sibling in a car. “Revenge and reversal are sweet … on the page, at least, if not in life,” Kohler writes. Thirty-five years after she lost Maxine – in a suspicious crash in a car driven by her husband – she has produced her first work of non-fiction that explains her “make-believe” stories. Once We Were Sisters is a lean, well-controlled memoir that exposes loving and tortured familial relationships, beginning in apartheid South Africa of the 1940s and 50s, where the girls grew up on a vast property staffed by an army of servants. The tight bond Kohler shared with Maxine, however strong, was unable to save her from a husband who beat her “black and blue” and who would end up killing her. Chillingly recounted, the book casts its characters against a backdrop of privilege, although money also left the women vulnerable and, ultimately, damaged.