Sisters is Daisy Johnson’s second novel following on from the outstanding Everything Under. Johnson also has a short story collection, Fen, published. Through these first two books she established herself as one of Britain’s brightest writing talents, becoming the youngest ever writer to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize (she was 27 at the time) for Everything Under. With Sisters, Daisy Johnson has cemented her position as one of the biggest talents writing in the world today.
Sisters tells the story of September and July. They are unusually close, basically twins despite being born 10 months apart. They do everything together. They moved their birthdays to the same day, have one phone between them, a bike they share and spend every moment together. September, as the slightly older sibling, dominates the relationship, controlling July and often telling her how to act, what to wear and when to speak. They play games such as September Says which is like Simon Says but with a much more sinister edge to it. They are raised by their mother, Sheela. Often, due to the intimacy between September and July, Sheela struggles to connect with her daughters and will clash with September regularly. It is very rare that either of the sisters get to spend any time alone with Sheela, which has clearly caused friction in their relationship.
An incident occurs at the sisters’ school in Oxford, where July is being bullied and September retaliates on her behalf. September, however, takes it too far. The family are forced to move away from the area and head to the North York Moors; to escape and gain some reprieve. Once they arrive at their Aunt’s home; ‘The Settle House’, Sheela retreats into her bedroom, never coming out during the day, leaving the sisters to fend for themselves. They explore the area, decorate, play games and meet some of the locals. As the story progresses, we discover more about what happened in Oxford and begin to understand better the strange nature of the relationship between the girls and why they had to move away in such a hurry.
There is so much to love about this book. The pacing is one of the aspects which makes it so enjoyable. At no stage does the story feel rushed or like we are hurtling through exposition to get to the next plot point. Johnson allows the story to reveal itself slowly, slipping into different time frames and exploring July’s thoughts and feelings. Sometimes though, I found myself unable to stop reading as I was dragged along to the next page by the burning desire to find out more, to understand more about the relationship between the girls and what exactly had happened back in Oxford. It is very easy to lose hours when reading this book without realising which is a sign of a book perfectly paced.
The quality of the writing throughout the novel is exquisite. The use of language to build tension and atmosphere is masterful, the dialogue always interesting as September manipulates July. The descriptions of the house and the landscape surrounding them are consistently both haunting and beautiful. It was clear, from Fen and Everything Under, that Daisy Johnson is incredibly talented, but this is the best writing of hers I have read. Particularly in the final third of the book, where Johnson tackles themes of grief, guilt, and mental health, which she explores with a rare poignance that is both moving and disturbing in equal measure.
The plot is unpredictable without ever just throwing in twists for the sake of trying to keep the story interesting. One of my biggest issues with thrillers or horror novels is that they often just go out of their way to shock you for the sake of shocking you. This often means the twists are pointless or nonsensical and it can ruin the entire reading experience. This is not one of those cases. The story is meticulously plotted, to the point of even if you do figure out what is going on, it doesn’t remotely detract from the experience.
Another aspect of this book I adored is the setting of The Settle House. I am an absolute sucker for a good haunted house, and this is a belter. It is portrayed differently than in a traditional horror story but the cloying, overbearing presence of the house is vital to the atmosphere of the story. It seems to shift and change throughout, revealing parts of itself before changing once again leaving July, and the reader, wondering what is real. Strange noises, hidden passages, creepy infestations it has absolutely everything you could ever want. It is the perfect setting for the story to unfold as the girls play hide and seek, struggle with broken bulbs and central heating, and try to renovate it.
One of the things about this book which surprised me is how genuinely creepy and disturbing it is. I loved Everything Under, but I don’t think I ever found it scary. After reading the synopsis of this story, I wasn’t expecting to be creeped out by this either, but I was left sweating through most of the book. It never allows you to settle and constantly keeps you on your toes. It is not about building to a scary moment and then a reprieve and then building again (although there are some genuinely scary moments) it is about the whole atmosphere and tension. The inescapable sensation that something isn’t right but never quite being able to pin down exactly what it is. The fear of what September might say next and what that might mean for July. The darkness and uncertainty. The sinister weather. It is the perfect gothic tale and a real throwback to the likes of Shirley Jackson or Daphne Du Maurier.
It is not all just about fear and tension. The relationship between September and July is one of the most intriguing and nuanced relationships I have come across in literature. The sense of loyalty July has to September, despite her behaviour. The fierce protectiveness September has towards her sister. The battle for power and the struggle for control between the pair of them. There is a real tenderness between them and the love that they share but it is always tinged with an edge. Then there is the heart-wrenching exploration of mental health, segments detailing domestic abuse and the effects it has, the struggle of somebody trying to do their best by their children, even when said child has done something unspeakable. There is something in this book which everyone can relate to on some level and in that lies its genius. It gets under your skin and refuses to budge. I have read this book twice and I know I will read it many more times because there is so much to explore, unpick and try to understand. So many important and interesting themes, packed into what is a relatively short novel.
Daisy Johnson has written my favourite book of the year so far. Frankly, I struggle to see how anything will have a similar effect on me. It is instantly one of my favourites of all time. It is beautifully written, fascinating, thought provoking, horrifying, heart-breaking, mesmerising and everything else a wonderful story needs to be. The characters are expertly created as are the relationships between them. It is simply wonderful. I doubt you will read a better book all year.