Non-Fiction, Reviews

Once We Were Sisters by Sheila Kohler (2017)


Like the last book I read, I found Once We Were Sisters through my GoodReads recommendations. I had never heard of Sheila Kohler but soon discovered that she is well-established writer of fiction, and this is her first memoir. It centres around her relationship with her older sister Maxine, and the devastation of Maxine’s sudden death at the age of 39. Having an older sister of my own, I knew I would be able to relate to their relationship in some way, and the premise intrigued me. More intriguing still is the fact that Maxine died when her husband veered their car off the road; she died, but he lived. Sheila wonders how this could have happened, and in the prologue poses her questions immediately following her sister’s death:

How could we have failed to protect her from him? What was wrong with our family? Was it our mother? Our father? Was it our nature, the way we were made, our genes, what we had inherited? Or, more terrible still, is there no answer to such a question? Was it just chance, fate, our stars, our destiny? It was not as if we did not see this coming. What held us back from taking action, from hiring a bodyguard for her? Was it the misogyny inherent in the colonial and racist society in the South Africa of the time? Was it the Anglican Church school where she and I prayed  daily that we might forgive even the most egregious sin? Was it the way women were considered in South Africa and in the world at large?

I am still looking for the answers.

This is quite a setup, and I was instantly drawn in.

The book skips about in time, with some chapters covering Sheila and Maxine’s childhood in South Africa, and the rest telling various stories from across their lives. There is very little mention of the years, and only the occasional mention of their ages, and so at times I was a little muddled about which period we were visiting in which chapter; it doesn’t help that both sisters travelled a lot, and lived abroad at various points. Towards the end of the book, when Maxine’s death is discussed in more detail, the timeline becomes more linear and we see how Sheila dealt with her grief and managed to continue on with her life.

There are some wonderful sections musing on the nature of sisterhood, of mothers and fathers, of marriage; both sisters have ultimately troubled marriages, and Sheila wonders why they both chose men that “have almost destroyed who we are.” I particularly enjoyed the memories of their mother with her two sisters, sitting together talking and knitting, weaving stories; likewise Sheila and Maxine playing games and wandering around the grounds of their huge childhood home in South Africa; and their times together in France and Italy, really getting to talk and escape their daily lives.

They are both weighed down by children, and as we learn, Maxine’s husband becomes violent towards both her and their children, and her life becomes increasingly difficult. As the above quote implies, while there is sympathy and comfort for Maxine from Sheila and their family, none of them step in to protect her from her husband, Carl, or offer her anything more than temporary respite. More than once, when Maxine does not want to return home from a trip, Sheila reminds her that she must get back to her children. Leaving Carl is never suggested as an option for Maxine, as it might be today, even when she reveals that he was caught trying to molest a child. Although Maxine has six healthy children, being a mother and wife is the end of her in more ways than one.

Sheila’s troubled marriage is blighted by infidelity rather than violence, and becomes perhaps even more difficult when her husband does not want to end their marriage, despite his affairs, and they continue on together in disharmony. His reasons for this are not explained beyond his declaration of continuing love for Sheila, but one suspects that the weight of tradition and obligation are a factor – likewise for Sheila, as she does not express a desire to leave him at this point. Instead she seethes with rage and betrayal, becoming obsessed with the idea of his lover, and even going to his mother for support. Of course it turns out that his mother is also speaking to him, and playing them off against each other.

A lot of this book is about mothers, and being a woman in a particular time and place, and the expectations society can place on women. Sheila and Maxine, as well as their mother and mothers-in-law, all seem to be trapped by their lives in some way, while the men live more or less as they choose. None of them seem especially happy except when they are purposefully escaping on holiday, or into drinking. Even as children there is a certain gloom over the two sisters – which may or may not be due to Sheila’s knowledge of their fate, woven into the writing.

I enjoyed Once We Were Sisters, but for me the book lacked coherence as a whole. The moves through time seemed a bit random, rather than a carefully constructed timeline, and the sparse writing, though lovely, made the whole thing feel a little out of reach, a little unreal and dreamy. Though I suppose this is how memories sometimes feel, especially if they are wrapped in sadness and grief. The book ends on a vague note, after Sheila has explored her anger and grief, her desire for revenge against her brother-in-law, dissipated over time. She reflects on her sister’s life, and her life as it is now, but does not really draw any conclusions. Instead we are left with the pain of her memories of her sister as a perfect child, and she comes to accept “that she, so lively and lovely, could be dead.”


Published by Penguin and Canongate in 2017. I read the Canongate paperback, pictured above (image via

Fiction, Reviews

“Defiantly alive…” Water Music by Margie Orford

I’ve decided I officially like crime fiction. I kept hearing about great crime writers and felt genuinely interested when I read synopses and blurbs – so I dived in. I read Snow White Must Die by Nele Neuhaus (review here) and loved it. More please!


2014 Head of Zeus paperback cover (image:

I heard about Water Music when publisher Head of Zeus announced their upcoming titles for 2014. I scanned the catalogue and it was the title that jumped out at me the most. Crime was on my radar, and I liked that it was set in South Africa – a country I’ve never been to and don’t know much about, but one that has featured in a couple of books I quite liked, and seemed intriguing. So different from Britain, a bit exotic, mysterious, and, well, gritty.

A lot of Water Music is gritty. Dr Clare Hart (the central character of five Margie Orford novels, including this one) is an expert of crimes committed against children and is called in to advise on a very young girl found naked and freezing in the woods; and then when a teenage girl goes missing. The little girl is malnourished and so pale she could hardly have seen daylight – she is wrapped in layers of mystery and questions, and she sets in motion a dramatic and trying week for Clare Hart.

The teenage girl, Rosa, is reported missing by her grandfather, with whom she lives, and Clare takes on the case out of her own concern and sympathy for both the girl and the grandfather. Her department is under threat and she is targeted for not being a police officer, only a civilian, getting involved in police business; but Clare is a specialist, an expert with sharp instincts and deep feeling for the persecuted victim.

Her own story comes slowly to light throughout the book, as does her relationship with an officer, Reidwaan Faizal, who is a fascinating, dark character. Early in the book she finds out that she is pregnant, and she battles this issue, alone, as she tries to discover the truth of what happened to these two poor girls.

I loved the twists and turns of this book, the truly unknowable nature of the next chapter. Orford surprised me on almost every page, with short sharp chapters driving the pace and building the tension. Clare is relentless is her pursuit of the truth, and unwaveringly brave in the face of danger as she delves deeper into the underside of Cape Town. As I read I could not guess what had happened, how this little girl had been left alone under some plastic, tethered to a tree; how Rosa went missing three weeks ago and no one has noticed until now. Who was really involved? Who knows more than they are telling? And what do they know? Why are they keeping secrets? My mind was spinning with questions and I read on compulsively.

This is the first Margie Orford novel I’ve read and I will definitely look into her previous novels. Her plotting is excellent, and her writing is both engaging, moving and atmospheric, conveying the feelings of the characters and the grim realities of the situations so vividly. I felt uncomfortable and scared with Clare, and desperate with her when she is grasping for clues and fighting to get to the hidden truths.

Read this book!


First published in South Africa in 2013 by Jonathan Ball Publishers, and in the UK by Head of Zeus on 27th February 2014. My copy was kindly provided by Head of Zeus for review.

A section of this review was printed in The Bookseller on 21st February 2014.

Fiction, Reviews

The Fever Tree by Jennifer McVeigh

March 2012 paperback cover. Image:

March 2012 paperback cover. Image:

I acquired my slightly enormous paperback early copy of this book from the Penguin Bloggers Night (I will stop going on about that eventually) and it was one I was particularly eager to read. Having enjoyed Jennifer McVeigh’s reading and having chatted with her at the event, I had high expectations for The Fever Tree. Mostly this was because it was set in a world I know nothing about but that appealed to me (in a novel) – 19th century South Africa, a country afflicted with smallpox and plagued by the greed and corruption surrounding the diamond mines. McVeigh carried out extensive research into the lives of those involved in the mining and apparently the initial idea for the book came from her discovery in the British Library of the diary of a young doctor in South Africa. This intense research undoubtedly pays off, making the book as a whole vivid and engaging; but more of that in a moment.

The story follows Frances Irvine, a young woman left orphaned and penniless when her father dies. He was a successful businessman, but his bad investments in new railroads mean that Frances is left with nothing. She has suffered all her life from her dead mother’s family discriminating against her Irishness (if you’re Irish, be prepared to be insulted by these charming characters). After her father’s death, and several unexpected events, she is left with two choices – become a governess to her cousins and share a small, dingy house with them and her aunt in the industrial north (a memory of the foul outdoor toilet is enough to turn her against this) or marriage to distant cousin Edwin Matthews, who is a doctor and lives in South Africa. He used to visit when they were children and she has never liked him; but her stern, cruel aunt with her rampant children and tiny, dirty house is a far worse fate.

The voyage to South Africa is both romantic and tense. Her emigration (deemed to be the fate of poor, lowly, possibly criminal, people) garners even more disdaining looks, but she makes friends with her roommates and spends her days lusting after the handsome and intriguing William Westbrook. This is the romantic part. The tense part comprises the prejudice of the first class passengers, with whom she is made to dine at William’s well-intended insistence, and her fears about her arrival in South Africa. She fears she will be lonely, that her relationship with Edwin will not develop well, and that they will have no money. She crosses her fingers, almost get swept overboard, shares a few illicit moments, vomits quite  a few times, and waits to arrive in her new home.

While the section on the voyage to South Africa is excellent, the book gets even better after Frances arrives in her frankly terrifying new home. Better for the reader, that is – for Frances, things just seem to go from bad to worse. She waits in Cape Town for William, but is forced to leave for her to-be-marital home after he delays their meeting. She is already disheartened by this when she arrives at the small cottage, situated in the middle of what is almost a desert. The veldt is wide, flat, dry and humid. Sandstorms happen sporadically, it never rains, and nothing grows; and yet, their cottage is located on what is technically a farm. Really. It is impossible to see how it produces anything. Edwin arrives and they are married, quietly and without much celebration.  From here Frances’ experience of life in South Africa becomes increasingly dramatic and based around her physical and psychological – and quite fundamental – reactions to the sufferings that befall her. McVeigh’s writing is vivid and sensual, with descriptions of landscape and physical experience being particularly potent. Frances is in some ways naive and blindly optimistic, but McVeigh’s skills as a writer stop her from becoming annoying. Instead we sympathise with her desperation and disappointment, and suffer with her as her situation changes, worsens, improves, worsens again and eventually concludes (no, I’m not going to tell you how).

The Fever Tree has already been described as cinematic, and this is certainly true. Personally I think it would make a brilliant romantic drama, with the actress in Frances’ role being key to its success. The intense focus on her personal experience would mean that any shortcomings in the actress’ performance would have a greatly detrimental effect on the film as a whole. Likewise the depiction of the veldt and later the misery of life in Kimberley would be key – McVeigh describes these so vividly that they are almost characters in themselves. A lot of this story is about the feeling one gets from a situation or place, something that cannot be spoken or spelled out but garnered in a more subtle way from ongoing descriptions or visuals. The end of the story has echoes of Jane Eyre in terms of structure and final resolution, and the story as a whole is apparently of a similar type to Love in a Time of Cholera (I haven’t read the latter, but have been informed of this fact by one who has) – dramatic, romantic, but not sensationalist or too melodramatic. There are elements of melodrama in the landscapes and Frances’ ill health, but like her naive behaviour they are saved by McVeigh’s brilliant writing. Still the melodrama might put some people off but it won’t if you at all like 19th century literature as the tone here is quite similar. In fact, this could easily be a Victorian novel, with its brave heroine, mysterious suitors and sweeping landscapes. No doubt fans of Victorian literature will enjoy it, but anyone else may as well. Not bad at all for a debut novel.


Published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin, in March 2012. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.