Sisters, by Daisy Johnson
Daisy Johnson is barely in her 30s, and has only written two novels and a book of short stories, but she’s already been shortlisted for a Man Booker prize and is an Edge Hill Short Story Award winner. I read her debut novel, Everything Under, and was pulled into a far ranging yet intimate story, sometimes feral and often disconcerting that has at its core the story of a mother and daughter, with an epic pedigree.
While reading her second novel, Sisters, published in August 2020, it occurred to me that this young writer excels in creating damaged, incomplete characters that inhabit insular worlds, and yet are unintentionally, ruthlessly compelling.
Siblings September and July were born ten months apart. September is the willful one, the forceful one, who both provokes and cares for younger, pliable July. July, for the most part the book’s narrator, feels somewhat simple in her acceptance of September’s directions and her sometimes grudging reliance on her protection, even if she is unsure of the motivation for her sister’s actions. (“One of the teachers took me aside once and said, Does September make you do things you don’t want to do? And I said no no no no but underneath the no there was a maybe that I think about only at times like this.”)
The book opens with the sisters moving with their mother into “the Settle House” on the North York Moors, following some unspecified, mysterious incident at their school in Oxford. The worn down, dingy house is owned by their dead father’s sister, rented out to “people like us who do not know where else to go.” Their mother had lived there before – September was born there – but even then the house had seemed barren and remote. Now it feels duplicitous, suspicious.
The loneliness of the Moors is palpable but other than the splayed relationship of the sisters, there is no sense of unity in this book. Not only are the sisters unaffected by their mother’s exclusion, but the utterly ordinary people who cross their path – the fellow who comes to fix their internet connection, the local boy who invites the sisters to a party with friends on the beach – are toyed with cruelly and wantonly.
Deciphering the sisters’ relationship, piecing together the emotional absence of their mother, and navigating their suddenly remote existence where whatever happened at the school is always a fleeting motion at the corner of the reader’s eye provides a strumming suspense throughout the book, a slow, constant boil that feels continually ominous. Although you know a revelation is coming, you are unsure of where it will come from; so much of the narrative – even the language of the narrative – keeps the reader off balance, and questioning what is real and what is imagined, and why. When the revelation does come, it is truly devastating.
Sisters is a book that will chill you and completely draw you in. You know that sister that you haven’t talked to in years or that brother that always seems to get under your skin? They won’t seem all that bad after reading this book. And yet, and yet, the bond between the two sisters, while eerie and dysfunctional, is also, in its own bizarre way, riveting.
— Sharon Browning