Once We Were Sisters | Book Club / Book Club

27th April 2017

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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  • This sounds both heartbreaking and gripping. I’m not quite sure that I have the emotional capacity to deal with it in memoir form but I’m intrigued to find out a bit more about her works of fiction- thanks for the recommend.

  • I have always felt blessed to have my sister, I remember the feeling even as a young lass. But as we have grown older and life has dealt us and our family it`s share of joys and sorrows, I can barely express in words what she means to me. It`s strange, because we are so different, it`s not all sunshine and roses…and yet, she`s here and I`m here and together through it all, we soldier on. This book is for us. Thank you for the review.

  • Julie Woodington

    I never had a sister and always wished I had. My mother is a twin of 86yrs old, they are extremely close as their husbands both passed away and they have lived together for many years.

    This review, particularly with the photos, is so real and reminds me of my mother and aunt in the 1960’s. This story of tragic preventable death has made me feel I must read it to help put it right, although it will be heart wrenchingly sad to the end.

    I must spend more time with my Mum!

  • This review makes this book sound like one for me! I have experienced problems within my own family, and l always find true stories so alluring

  • Hey I am a great reader will definitely check this book out! I was not aware that you had written any books! Congrats that is awesome. I have always been in awe of people who could write. Will be researching your books to read. Thanks.

  • Just purchased this book based on this beautiful but haunting review. After this, next on my list is to hunt down titles by this reviewer!


    It sounds like a story that warrants being told over and over again but I will not be reading it. There is too much injustice in my own life (and the world as I see it). I am looking at the very least for a bit of escapism, preferably a touch of resolution and occasionally the hint of a happy ending!

  • Never do anything for the sake of children. Their lives must have been affected by the terrible violence done to their Mother, they would have much better she left sooner than later, with them. Authors will always feel guilt, it is what us women do best, whatever desitions we make in life…

  • Jac O'Callaghan

    Such a beautiful narrative, you can almost feel the endless heartache for her cherished sister. The honesty of their early years with parents absent, one in physical distance the other remote and self serving.
    The authors’ “eternal regret” only confirms her integral love for her sister and evokes sadness for the reader. She really should forgive herself, it was her brother in law and maybe ( and I stress maybe, I do not wish to offend the author, her sister or her parents) their parents absence of love and nurturing that caused or determined her tragically, premature death.
    If only the author could cherish the memory of their mutual love of one another, confirmed by their many holidays spent together in their adult life together with their magical childhood.

  • I’m reading it! It’s painful and fabulous

  • Hella Anderson

    That is such a harrowing story. I have two sisters and our upbringing was not made of money, but an angry mother and a remote father contributed to our difficulties in making healthy relationships. Today there is money and it has brought conflict and competition. As a family we are not close and only by moving to another country have I managed to work out my past and move forward to a healthier place. However, the past is always there in the background, often rearing its ugly head unannounced. Sometimes writing can bring relief and others may learn how to live better.

  • What a wonderfully interesting read – I am a sister myself – if someone hurt my sibling they would hear me howling clear across to the continent!

    I understand this form of revenge,
    but I agonise over how it would affect the children.

  • How sad a story of loss, attachment and grief. I hope she forgives herself.

  • This is a must-read for me, I will look
    for it in my local book shop. Thank you.

  • Looks like the book I want to read & will look out for it. I was born in 1950 & my name is also Sheila & have a close sister, although her name is Linda, not Maxine. Will definitely purchase this book as it looks a good read & will pass it on to my sister.

  • I will get this to read …..a great review

  • Deirdre Gardiner

    I loved this review and will seek out Betsy Tobin and Maxine Kohlers work.

  • Lives lost, lives changed forever , how very despairing to be constantly trying to then make atonement for ever continuing to write of a violent death.

  • This sounds like a fascinating and intense book well worth the read. The fact that it is a true story written by the surviving sister trying to exorcise her own demons of guilt will certainly make it a darker more resonating narrative.

  • I cannot t wait to read this book having lived in South Africa as a child, the characters felt immediately familiar.
    In fact I had to stop reading the review halfway through, already totally sold on it being a great read and not wanting
    To know too much of the plot.

  • Interesting. Will follow this.

  • Nancy Swallow Somerfeld

    A beautiful review of a stunning memoir. Both the writing and story are haunting.

  • This sounds lie a very unnerving book. I may recommend it as the next read at the book club I am in.

  • Wow….think I need to read this! ☺️

  • What a wonderfully clever way to revenge her sisters death. An example to all who have been wronged in some way.