This was another audiobook fail. It sounded interesting from the blurb, but don't they all? Well not really, but many of them do! The blurb says (yes in block caps!) that this is "ONE OF PEOPLE MAGAZINE'S BEST NEW BOOKS." It adds that People thinks it's "An intimate illumination of sisterhood and loss." No, it really isn't. I immediately made a mental note never to trust a People magazine rating. The blurb also says that according to the BBC, this is "A searing and intimate memoir about love turned deadly." No, it isn't. It's a rambling recollection of a childhood that was seemingly obsessed by defecation. I kid you not.
The most absurd aspect of the blurb though was when it said, "Kohler evokes the bond between sisters and shows how that bond changes but never breaks, even after death" yet the memoir is titled, "Once We Were Sisters" like that no longer holds. Unbreakable bond? Bullshit. Had it been a truly unbreakable bond, Maxine would never have died so tragically.
So the blurb was at best hypocritical, but unless they self-publish, authors typically don't write their own blurbs. In my experience that chore is typically consigned to the most inept member of the publishing team. The fact that none other than Joyce Carol "Feeling Her" Oates says this is "Highly recommended" ought to tell you all you need to know about how useless these recommendations truly are.
The author got the news that her older sister by two years, the thirty-nine-year-old Maxine, had died when her husband drove them off a road in Johannesburg. The blurb tells us that, "Stunned by the news, she immediately flew back to the country where she was born, determined to find answers and forced to reckon with his history of violence and the lingering effects of their most unusual childhood--one marked by death and the misguided love of their mother."
To me that sounded like it would make for an interesting read, and maybe provide some ideas for a story of my own? Who knows? I'm always open to ideas but that's not my primary motivation for reading anything, especially not something that came off sounding like a detective story, but in the end it wasn't: there was no detecting and there were no answers offered.
Anyway, I checked it out of the library I adore and started listening to it right away, and I noted the first problem: it's written exceedingly sparsely. It's more like a set of notes for a memoir rather than a finished work. It's read pretty well - if somewhat quirkily on occasion - by the author, but the story itself really isn't anything special or very engrossing. Apart from the excrement fetish, it's nothing more than the usual childhood recollections that any family of similar circumstances might relate. Why all this stuff and nothing about finding answers? I'm guessing this is because there were neither answers sought nor found. I have my own theory about why this memoir was written which I shall go into shortly.
It's obviously set in South Africa, but you really wouldn't know it from the writing. Apart from an occasional reference here and there, this memoir could have been of any wealthy, slightly dysfunctional family, living anywhere, which had rather more tragedy than any family ought. There really was very little to anchor it to South Africa and the story jumped around too much between early childhood and later life, so we have the author talking about an eight year old in one paragraph, having babies (which seemed to excite her quite a lot) in the next, and then back to relating how she, as a child, had urinated through the wicker chair on the porch. Really? As a listener, I wasn't prepared for the jumping between different ages, let alone for the entirely unnecessary revelation about urination.
I don't do prologues (or prefaces, introductions, author's notes, and so on). To me they're misplaced at best, and fatuous at worst, but it's often hard to avoid them in an audiobook. I managed it here, but not without hearing the opening sentence to the prologue, which said, "This is a story about South Africa" No, wrong again! I was truly sorry because I'd wished it was, but it wasn't. The truth is, it seemed to me, that this was about the author: her childhood, her love of babies ...and defecation, her spoiled-rotten life and oh yes, I think there might have been a few mentions of this beloved sister.
The saddest thing is that even when she told us of this life of hers, it was always superficial. There were never any real insights into living in the depths (and I do mean depths) of apartheid or even anything insightful in her relationship with her sister. It was always about the author, and only the shallowest recollections even of that. This is why the story felt so bland and generic rather than richly-hued and personal.
These sisters thought nothing about jet-setting and going on ritzy vacations and fashion-buying trips to Europe, leaving their children behind. Neither did they have a problem taking lovers, yet they would not leave abusive husbands? The most powerful thing that this author conveyed to me is not so much how utterly clueless she is (or was: maybe she wised-up) about real life, but how thoroughly shallow, self-centered, and superficial she is. I detected no sign of any love here for anything but her own comfort.
Ultimately the saddest part of this is that it would seem that the author knew her sister's marriage was a bad one: that her husband was physically abusive to his wife and their children and yet no one did a thing about it. They just let it run its unnatural course and so it seems that her sister's untimely and violent death was an inevitable outcome, and that the blame for it really needs to be placed elsewhere than on this psychotic husband's shoulders. Her mother forgave her son in law. Sheila never pushed for an investigation regardless of what the blurb says.
When Maxine had indicated there were problems, she was never offered any assistance by her family, so we're forced to conclude from this memoir. Where was the love? Where was the bond? It felt like her mother and sister had said to Maxine: you made your bed; now you must die in it. In her own words, Sheila pretty much told her sister to stay in the marriage for the sake of her children, thereby ultimately condemning her to death. And it's unclear whether Maxine's husband drove the car off the road or whether Maxine took hold of the steering wheel to end it all, or whether it was simply an accident. He was wearing a seatbelt. She wasn't. Still, today in South Africa only about six in ten drivers use a seatbelt.
Had the memoir been written differently, I may have experienced it differently and now been able to view it differently, but I could only review what the author offered, and what this felt like was less of a loving memoir, or an attempt to find some truth, as it was a determined effort assuage a tortured soul: to seek absolution for the author's inexcusable inaction in light of her sister;s suffering.
In the end, it was really nothing more than an attempt to turn a hard, harsh marble sculpture of a life into a soft, pretty, pastel watercolor, and in that light, it was quite sickening to listen to. It's a very short memoir, which is just as well, because if it had been any longer I would not have stayed with it to the end, As it was, I found myself skipping parts here and there. I cannot commend this at all. It doesn't remotely feel to me like it's a fitting memorial for the tragic life of a prematurely deceased sister.