Daisy Johnson’s second novel, Sisters, is a haunting tale of sibling love and resentment, a gothic masterpiece brilliantly brought to life.
Sisters, Daisy Johnson’s second novel, is compelling reading from the first page to the last. I devoured it in more or less a single sitting one grey Sunday morning, neglecting both the laundry and the friend I had staying with me at the time, a testament to how much it grips you, reels you in.
It opens with teenage sisters, July and September, and their mother Sheela, arriving in Yorkshire one day in late spring after a long drive north from Oxford. The house they have arrived at, The Settle House, belongs to the sister of their long-dead father who doesn’t live there herself but instead rents it out to ‘people like [them] who do not know where else to go’. It is old and steeped in history, sitting on the very edge of the North York Moors, ‘only just out of the sea’. It is unclear why the trio have ended up here, but what is clear is that there has been some forcing factor, something that has caused them to leave the life they had and start anew. The implication is that somehow the girls are responsible: ‘we would never have had to leave if you hadn’t done what you did’.
The story is told mostly through July’s eyes, the younger and less dominant of the two, and as the title suggests, the relationship between the sisters is at its heart, though we are also given chapters from Sheela’s perspective, and even from The Settle House itself. The pair are born ten months apart, but seem closer than even twins, a closeness that at times seems to border on the supernatural: ‘When one of us speaks we both feel the words moving on our tongues. When one of us eats we both feel the food slipping down our gullets. It would have surprised neither of us to have found, slit open, that we sharedorgans, that one’s lungs breathed for the both, that a single heart beat a doubling, feverish pulse.’
I have a sister myself, and we are at times the best of friends, at others we can rile each other in ways that only those closest to you can. This novel takes that complexity of the sibling relationship and imagines it in its most concentrated, extreme form. It addresses what it is to know someone else better than you know yourself, to love them more than you love yourself, to rely on someone fully and completely, but also explores what it means when deep intimacy is also smothering, when co-dependence becomes cruel control (there is an increasingly sinister game of ‘September Says’ that appears at intervals, and a repeated theme of punishment throughout the book), and the guilt that can come with any attempt to pull away.
The sisters rattle around the old house, scavenging meals from dusty tins left in the pantry and retreating into their own private world of game playing and make believe, whilst Sheela hides herself away upstairs, dirty haired and dirty pyjama-ed, sunk in an unexplained melancholia. As the novel progresses, the past is revealed in unchronological snatches; we learn more about what brought them to Yorkshire, but also about the girls’ childhood, their parents’ relationship and the seam of violence running through it, and Sheela’s struggle with depression. In the present day, the relationship between the sisters begins to morph and flex as they test their ability to stretch the bond between them, disobey the wishes of the other, and, at a beach party with some other local teens, form connections beyond their sibling one.
As well as the delicate drip, drip of revelation, there is a final flourish of a twist, one that some other reviewers have said they saw coming, but that I personally didn’t. I did feel though that this finale was laid out with too much by way of exposition, particularly asI felt the rest of the novel’s strength lay in how subtly, tantalisingly, each layer of story was disclosed, sometimes by allusion only.
Sisters has all the elements of a classic gothic novel brought brilliantly to modern life, and the parallels which have been drawn between Johnson and Shirley Jackson, one of the masters of modern gothic fiction, are well deserved. There are echoes of Merricat and Constance Blackwood, the protagonist sisters of We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962) in the protective and dependent relationship between July and September. The anthropomorphised Settle House, whose ‘rooms are like organs, trembling a little under the flow of blood’, is in turn both malevolent and benignand displays more than a few characteristics of the eponymous house in The Haunting of Hill House (1959): architectural dimensions that don’t quite work; walls that aren’t fully what they seem. Dreams play a key part too; we hear how ‘the seam between sleep and waking grew thin’ and it is increasingly unclear what is real and what is imagined. What is particularly brilliant though is Johnson’s use of 21st century technologies to amplify the sense of building horror;the sisters’ compulsion with ensnaring men on internet chat rooms,their poltergeist-like games with the internet repairman, the secondary school ‘mean girls’ whose cruelty is facilitated to devastating effect by social media, the unease the reader feels at learning that the sisters share a single mobile phone.
In Sisters, Johnson has given us a haunting tale of sibling love and resentment, a gothic masterpiece for our times, all the more so because of how rooted it is in the world we know.
Daisy Johnson’s Sisters is published now by Jonathan Cape and is available to purchase online.
Feature image is a detail of an photograph by Francesca Woodman.