Once We Were Sisters | Book Club / Book Club
The TOAST Book Club is published on the last Friday of every month. The reviews are written by Betsy Tobin, author of five novels and joint founder of Ink@84 – an independent bookshop just up the road from our head office, situated in leafy Highbury. Though the book club exists in a purely digital sphere we hope that you will add your own opinions and thoughts below.*
If art can make amends, then the novelist Sheila Kohler has spent a lifetime in atonement: over the course of thirteen books she has endlessly rewritten the story of her sister Maxine’s violent death, a death she blames herself for failing to prevent. This is a beautifully written howl of grief over a life cruelly cut short, and an extraordinary tale of sibling love and intimacy.
Born into a wealthy South African family, Sheila and Maxine grew up on a Johannesburg estate in the Apartheid Fifties. It is a life where armies of servants in thin white gloves and starched suits ‘roll the butter between wooded slats’, while outside gangs of barefoot convicts ‘dig and smooth the lawns’.
As children, the two girls are largely left to themselves, playing endless secret games, including a favourite called ‘Doll’, where one lies on the floor, ‘stiff and obedient’ to the other’s wishes. Their world is one of extraordinary privilege and luxury, at once both underpinned by and curiously severed from the harsh realities of apartheid – and emotionally stunted by the remoteness of both parents.
Not surprisingly, the two girls curl inwards, towards each other. Maxine is the ‘sweet one’, ‘dreamy, good-natured and merry’ – an ‘English rose’ with a shy smile and ‘pale delicate skin that bruises…easily’. Sheila is two years younger, sloe-eyed and ambitious. Both are extremely bookish, swearing they will ‘never marry anyone who has not read Dostoevsky’.
Their father is a hard-working timber merchant, rarely at home. Their dissolute mother delights in spending his money on ‘pastel dresses, leghorn hats with flowers, and pale kid gloves with buttons up to the elbows’ which she buys for herself and her two sisters. Her mother and aunts pass their days gossiping on the verandah, reinventing the past and the present with ‘selection…elaboration, exaggeration, dramatization’. They choose facts ‘according to their fancy and restructure them according to their wishes.’ And it is here that Kohler first learns the art of narrative, an art she will continue to perfect in her novels.
Beyond shopping and story-telling, their mother fills her sun-drenched days with sleep and drink, gradually withdrawing from the world. As children, Sheila and Maxine fear they will be whisked away by an evil spirit, what the Zulus call the Tokolosh. But the real threat comes later, and when it does it will not be Zulu, but white: Maxine marries Carl, a blond, blue-eyed Afrikaner training to be a heart surgeon, a man who loves flowers and is, on the face of it, a far more suitable match then the penniless American Sheila chooses.
Sadly Maxine does not heed the strange woman who telephones before her wedding and begs her not to marry Carl, refusing to say why.
Sheila relocates to America, and the sisters begin a long period of gestation, popping out endless babies between them, their lives still gilded by privilege. They ‘fly long distances back and forth to meet in beautiful places’: Scotland, Greece, Zermatt, the Italian Riviera, occasionally with husbands in tow. Maxine’s surgeon husband – handsome, athletic Carl – is ‘stiff and easily offended’. He is controlling, impatient, moody, censorious: while the sisters fritter away their time on stories, he has dedicated himself to the more essential business of life and death.
Inevitably cracks appear: Carl turns violent at home, calling the black servants into the bedroom, where ‘they are forced to participate in a particularly South African form of wife-beating, holding my struggling sister down on the bed while he beats her.’ On their last trip to Sardinia, Maxine confesses that she is afraid for her life: and to her eternal regret, Sheila urges her sister to return to her husband, ‘for the sake of the children.’
Soon after, the unstable Carl drives his car off a deserted road into a lamppost: he wears a seat belt and survives. Unbelted, Maxine does not. Convinced that the act was deliberate, Kohler never accuses him face to face. Instead she vents her rage in fiction, determined to keep Maxine ‘alive on the page’ where she can finally deliver the revenge she deserved. Impeccably written and unnervingly intimate, this is Kohler’s most potent and barefaced assault: a memoir for sisters everywhere.
Words by Betsy Tobin
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