I loved this memoir about the relationship between the author, Sheila Kohler, and her older sister, Maxine. It’s so beautifully written, with such soul and intensity, it was impossible for me to put it down even though I knew tragedy was lodged in its heart.
The tragedy comes from what took place thirty-eight years ago, when Maxine was thirty-nine, and her husband, Carl, drove them off of a deserted road in Johannesburg, injuring himself and killing Maxine. Kohler, who knew of the abuse her sister had experienced at Carl’s hands, is convinced her sister’s death was not an accident. This book is Kohler’s tribute to Maxine and her way of setting the record straight about her sister’s life and death.
Kohler describes the relationship between herself and her sister beautifully and meticulously, alternating between their childhood and their adult years, describing their largely absent father and impulsive mother. Also beautifully described are the places where the two women lived, including the estate in South Africa where they were raised as children, as well as Florence, Paris, and New York. I always felt as though I was there with them, the writing was so vivid.
I’d never read anything by Kohler before this, and I found it especially interesting when she mentioned the ways in which she’d previously fictionalized Maxine in other of her works – always with better outcomes. That’s not surprising, considering how close the two were and the tragedy of Maxine’s death. The idea of rewriting the past made me think about another wonderful book, the novel, Atonement, by Ian McEwan, in which that narrator also gives a better “second life” to her sister. Maybe we can’t change the past, but we can reinvent it and create what we wish had happened. That’s one way to get through it. The other way is to write the hard-knuckled truth. It’s taken Kohler a long time to do that, but I’m glad she finally did and I’m hoping she is, too.