Review: Sisters by Daisy Johnson

Sisters by Daisy Johnson (Riverhead Books 2020)

Reviewed by Nora Poole

Sisters, the chilling second novel from British writer Daisy Johnson, is about, well, sisters: a pair of them, named September and July, who leave their home in Oxford with their mother Sheela after a terrible incident occurs at their school. The three retreat to a ramshackle family home near the seaside, where the girls go about their days listless and inseparable, seemingly waiting out the depression that has settled on their mother. We enter the story in what feels like the aftermath, a climax already nestled in the past. The entirety of the novel feels like it’s both building toward the moment we find out what happened at the girls’ school, and like it’s fleeing that same moment. The book is an unsettling portrait of the teenage sisters’ troubled- and troubling- relationship, asking how much of ourselves we are willing to sacrifice for love, groping for the line between protecting your loved ones and consuming them.

From the beginning, the girls are left to their own devices, Sheela too depressed to do much parenting. The house is so dismal one immediately doubts it could be an improvement over whatever the family left behind. It’s a sagging tumbledown mess, “the top floor sunk down onto the bottom like a hand curved over a fist.” Everything is just a bit wrong, July notices when they arrive, everything “a little too bright, as if the bulbs are not quite right for their fixtures.” Dead insects and dirty dishes litter the kitchen; the light bulb in the pantry keeps mysteriously blowing out. A haunted house by any other name.

For most of the book, July is our narrator, and we get the sense early on that her connection with September is more intense than the ordinary closeness between siblings. Although they’re not twins (September is 10 months older), they may as well be. September’s thoughts penetrate July’s mind; July is often overwhelmed by her sister’s emotions, inhabits her body as a shared space, not her own. September is strong-willed and dominating, where July is pliable and unflaggingly loyal to her sister. September, too, is loyal — she defends July at school when the younger sister bullied mercilessly by a clique of popular girls. Her loyalty, though, has a sharper edge — one of revenge. Harm July and you won’t be spared September. As her mother notes, September is a master manipulator, practiced in the “withholding of love for tactical advantage, the control concealed within silky folds of care.”

Although July’s first-person narration accounts for the bulk of the novel, Sisters shifts between points of view, creating a fractal and fragmented recounting of events. Johnson also casts us back and forth in time. We get July’s memories as well as her telling of the events at the house. We learn from Sheela about the girls’ father, about her daughters’ relationship from the point of view of an observer. Sheela’s section details the poisonous dynamics that plagued this family even before the girls were born. We even get the point of view of the house, witness to the coming and going of generations, offering a kaleidoscopic view of characters we otherwise encounter with claustrophobic interiority . 

This fragmentary style is not new territory for Johnson, whose Booker Prize-nominated first novel, Everything Under, features a similar style, moving between narrators and fragmenting the chronology of events. Sisters addresses similar themes to Everything Under as well — family, identity, inter-generational trauma, memory, love, and power. Sisters is a distillation of the style Johnson wowed readers with in her debut; a shorter novel, it tumbles along in a way that makes it impossible not to turn the page.

At times, Sisters can feel overwhelmingly intense, July’s focus on the minutiae of her surroundings muddying the flow of events somewhat. But Johnson’s handling of the tragedy at the heart of the story, when she finally gets around to it, is deft. The reader is both surprised and haunted by a sense of inevitability, thanks to copious foreshadowing balanced by the opaque elusiveness of July’s interior monologue. It has the quality of a well-plotted mystery or a particularly effective psychological thriller, daring you to predict what’s around the corner, giving you space to be surprised at the climax, only to leave you thinking “I knew it!” and paging back through for the clues you missed.

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