Sisters by Daisy Johnson
This novel by young writer Daisy Johnson, who was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize with her debut Everything Under, is not what it seems at first glance. The story of sisters September and July, who are at home eating canned food and watching TV shows, turns into a tense gothic thriller that does not give the reader’s mind a second of comfort. The author uses tactile feelings, tastes, smells and sounds to create powerful images of a dark, mysterious and terrifying world. A world which starkly opposes the innocence and vulnerability of childhood.
July and September are only ten months apart and function like two halves of a whole – “shoulder-to-shoulder, sharing air”, sharing one body for two – to the extent that the former even feels the same pain when the latter loses her virginity. July follows her sibling everywhere and will do whatever her sister wants when they play the game “September says”, the demands of which become increasingly damaging. The house where the sisters and their mother Sheela live provides another strong gothic image that penetrates the narrative: “rankled, bentoutashape, dirty-allover” with “crusts of moths”, spiders and “bones of tiny animals in the foundations”. The family moved here because they are haunted by something unspeakable, a dark mystery that pervades the story to the very end.
Touching upon the topic of motherhood, Johnson transforms the house into a female body when we see events from Sheela’s point of view. Her love for her daughters, like all relationships in the novel, is “like carrying shopping bags up a hill”, painful and dangerous: “She became convinced they wanted the very foundations of her, wanted to break the bricks of her body apart and climb back in ”.
Sisters echoes Brontë’s Wuthering Heights not only in its gothic elements and sombre descriptions of English landscapes but also in the idea of doomed love, love which becomes an omnipotent, harmful power. “If one of us was going to die and we could choose which it would be, would you die for me?” asks one sister. “Yes, of course”, comes the unsettling response.
The twist of the novel will become apparent to many readers even before it’s revealed, and this deprives the book’s finale of the potent effect it could have had. Despite this, Johnson’s language is so powerful that it outshines any flaws in the plot. Sisters is chilling and unrestful in a way many horror stories aren’t, the world of the novel itself a disturbing and anxious place: “I flush the toilet and stand in front of the mirror. I stare at myself, waiting for something to happen, and then, slowly, it does”.
Image: David Levenson
Sisters is published by Penguin Books at the hardback price of £14.99, and is available in the UK on 13th August 2020. For further information visit here.