Sisters by Daisy Johnson
Published by Johnathan Cape
Available from all Good Bookshops and Online
What They Say
Something unspeakable has happened to sisters July and September.
Desperate for a fresh start, their mother Sheela moves them across the country to an old family house that has a troubled life of its own. Noises come from behind the walls. Lights flicker of their own accord. Sleep feels impossible, dreams are endless.
In their new, unsettling surroundings, July finds that the fierce bond she’s always had with September – forged with a blood promise when they were children – is beginning to change in ways she cannot understand.
Taut, transfixing and profoundly moving, Sisters explodes with the fury and joy of adolescence. It is a story of sibling love and sibling envy that fans of Shirley Jackson and Stephen King will devour.
What I Say
“I am a shape cut out of the universe, tinged with ever-dying stars – and she is the creature to fill the gap I leave in this world.”
Sisters by Daisy Johnson was a novel that was firmly on my most anticipated reads at the start of this year, and I was thrilled to be gifted a copy by Mia. However, as any book blogger knows, putting any book on such a list immediately puts a lot of pressure on that book and yourself – what if it doesn’t live up to your expectations? How do you review it after hyping it up so much?
Honestly, it was not the novel I was expecting, but it was all the better for it. Sisters is a story that right from the start is filled with the uneasy sense that something is very amiss in the family who have travelled hastily to a remote location in Yorkshire called Settle House.
Sheela and her daughters July and September arrive at their new home and as soon as they get inside, Sheela disappears upstairs and leaves the girls to get on with it. This sets the tone for the novel in that the focus is totally on the sisters, born ten months apart and who are not only inseparable, but also are so close that it is difficult to see where one sister starts and the other one ends.
As the girls explore the delapidated house, which is cold and unwelcoming and still has clothes and belongings from previous residents, they are left to fend for themselves as their mother stays in her bedroom. As they attempt to find something to eat, to amuse themselves and ease into their new house, it seems that they are almost feral and unworldly in their appetites, and their mother has decided to hide herself away from them.
The mother’s immediate disconnection and inability to deal with or care for her daughters makes you wonder what has happened and whether the mother has any maternal feelings for her daughters at all.
The location and inaccessibility of the house adds to the mysterious and unsettling tone that permeates every page of this novel. There is the sense that the intense relationship between the sisters is not quite as straightforward as we would think, and that something we are yet to discover has sent the family to this remote place.
Life at school has been difficult for July, who has been bullied and exploited when she is co-erced into sending an explicit picture to a phone number who she believes is Ryan, the boy she is attracted to. There are also hints that an incident happened at the school tennis courts and that from then on, July and September’s world was never the same again.
Daisy Johnson has created sisters that seem to have this innate unspoken power, existing in a world that they inhabit so completely that to allow anyone else in would some how diminish their bond. This is what makes the novel even more intriguing, as nothing is explicitly stated – it is up to the reader to try and piece the plot together.
I also felt that there were constant connections between how the Settle House is described, and the changes that take place in the girls. At times it seems that the house is creaking, growing and keeping secrets stowed safely in its walls, and now that July and September are living here, they too are part of the life cycle of this house. This connection is depicted even more strongly in Part Two as we see all the events and family events the house has borne witness to over the years.
As the narrative shifts between July, and her mother Sheela we discover both the difficult history of the family and the house. As the novel moves between scenes of domestic life and almost folklore horror, the truth about this family slowly and tantalisingly emerges – and left this reader somewhat speechless.
Sisters is not only an engaging and absorbing novel about the claustrophobic relationship between July and September, it is also a story of a family adrift and in the depths of grief that constantly changes direction and pulls the reader along with it. Daisy Johnson’s narrative moves along so well and with so much conviction in all of her characters, that when you have finished it, you feel that you understand July and September so well that the ending couldn’t possibly have been anything else.
I loved it.
Thank you so much to Mia Quebell-Smith at Jonathan Cape for my gifted copy.