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Once We Were Sisters: A Memoir by Sheila Kohler [in Library Journal]

Sheila Kohler’s crisp, clipped voice is ideal for her memoir, which begins with references to Nelson Mandela, Afrikaners, and various family members that all announce her South African heritage. Although she left her birth country at 17, Kohler (Cracks; Crossways) has retained her clear, concise pronunciation almost 60 years later. What feels like detached precision enhances her first work of nonfiction, ensuring that her raw, revealing focus on the death of her older sister almost half of Kohler’s lifetime ago never devolves into maudlin, overwrought eulogy.

At 37, Kohler’s 39-year-old sister Maxine was killed in a car driven by her husband, leaving behind six young children: “This moment is the beginning of endless years of yearning and regret. It is also the beginning of my writing life.” More than a dozen titles and decades later, Kohler, now in her 70s, recounts what came before and what happened after and examines how she might have saved Maxine, who, despite personal wealth, privilege, and mobility, stayed in a violent marriage to a philandering gay doctor. Achingly graceful, unabashedly forthright, Kohler bears witness to an unbreakable bond even death cannot sever.

Verdict: An empathetic addition alongside Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air and Christa Parravani’s Her.

Review: “Audio,” Library Journal, July 1, 2017

Readers: Adult

Published: 2017

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