Published:  12:00 AM, 05 February 2017

A South African novelist recalls the sister she couldn't save

Justine van der Leun reveals the unuttered inner of the book

ONCE WE WERE SISTERS: A Memoir by Sheila Kohler, publisher - Penguin Books in January 17, 2017

Sheila Kohler's memoir, 'Once We Were Sisters,' begins at the height of apartheid, in 1979 South Africa, but the Struggle figures little into her wealthy white family's life. Instead, the book's central event is the death of Sheila's 39-year-old sister, Maxine, killed when her husband, Carl, plows their convertible into a lamppost.

 Did Carl, a heart surgeon prone to abusive rages, do it on purpose? This suspicion gnaws only at grieving Sheila. Her mother rejects suggestions to investigate. Instead, she sits by Carl's hospital bed, holding his hand.

Why does this woman forgive her daughter's killer? Sheila never confronts her mother. The Kohlers leave so much unspoken. Whenever softhearted Maxine asked for help leaving her marriage - politely, indirectly, repeatedly - her mother and sister brushed her off.

Perhaps their fixation on status guided them, or maybe the entrenched misogyny, white entitlement and inequality of South African culture had entered the communal bloodstream. Sheila, now the septuagenarian author of 14 works of fiction, has grappled with her role as a bystander to her older sister's death for over 35 years. Still, she remains puzzled and bereft, Maxine always on her mind.

Once, reflecting on a wonderful experience of her own, Sheila writes, "I can only hope my sister, too, has had some moments when she was able to enjoy the peace of a summer's night, the smells of the earth." In fact, we know that Maxine did experience tranquillity - if only because she did so with Sheila. The most poignant passages take place during childhood.

The girls' father, a ghost even before his untimely death, worked endlessly to satisfy their mother's taste for luxury, which included an 18-month world tour, adults only. This abandonment did not apparently pain the sisters, accustomed to nannies.

 Their purest bond was to each other anyway. "Always together," Sheila writes. "Together in the pale green nursery, .?.?. in the sun-filled breakfast room." And together, they played the "game of Doll." Each sister took her turn, "lying stiff and obedient," bowing to the other's commands - a placatory and ultimately fatal game they continued to play into adulthood.

After their father's death, the girls and their mother moved to an apartment, accompanied by a Zulu servant - the book's only lovable, enduring man, though his survival hinges on being adored by his mistresses.

Otherwise, they grow up in a world of women, first with their mother and aunts, then at boarding and finishing schools run by spinsters and lesbians. Men enter the picture when the girls reach their late teens. Sheila, averse to the country's political climate, leaves for Europe, while Maxine swans about Johannesburg.

Boyfriends immediately complicate matters. Sheila marries a philandering American, raises three daughters in Paris, takes a lover. Maxine marries Carl and bears him six children ("We need more white babies," a gynecologist urges).

Though settled on different continents, the sisters are drawn back to each other. They meet in France, Switzerland, Italy - shopping, skiing, swimming. It can be frustrating to read of South African lives so cut off from the reality of their country, but then again, Sheila remembers that race-based legislation was treated as a distasteful enigma during their youth. "Silence, secrecy and mystery surround us," she writes.

This is true, too, in their shrouded personal lives. Sheila bears her husband's compulsive cheating for years. Servants physically restrain Maxine as Carl brutalizes her. He rapes her, molests a boy, sleeps with a male colleague. Maxine confesses her husband's acts to Sheila, who, to her "eternal regret," advises Maxine to have an affair and to think of the children.

In the end, this is a memoir of love, sorrow, sisterhood and privilege. It's also a memoir of the limitations of such privilege - in particular, the inescapable tragedy of being born female in a patriarchal world, where all the money, beauty and breeding cannot protect you from a man who takes what he wants without consequence. Rich, pretty, good Maxine, forever the dutiful doll, died young, and her husband lived to a ripe old age, his atrocities never acknowledged. Until now.


The reviewer is an author and contributor at
www.nytimes.com

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