In Sisters, Daisy Johnson plays with familial intimacy, co-dependency, trauma and grief, and the turbulence of a teenage mind grappling with coming of age. The novel follows a familiar trajectory of starting in media res with the quest for answers creating the narrative tension. While this has worked exceptionally well in some of my favourite recent reads including Ian Reid’s I Am Thinking of Ending Things and Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You, Sisters leaves too much room for the inexplicable and many questions are left unanswered even after the final, and somewhat disappointing, unveiling of the truth.
July and September are sisters with a bond reminiscent of those normally seen between twin sisters. Born only ten months apart, they see themselves as representing “one house”: “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 shared organs, that one’s lungs breathed for them both, that a single heart beat a doubling feverish pulse”.
The sisters are with their mother, Sheela, who takes them to a secluded beach house in Yorkshire, “on the side of the North York Moors, only just out of the sea”. Sheela spends little time outside of her room and the girls are left to roam free and live off of peanut butter sandwiches and whatever else they can find in the dilapidated kitchen. Though they are described to be teenagers, their language use is that of smaller girls and Sheela also comments on this later in the novel. Everything about their antics and the wretched nature of the house seems wrong, out of place, and unsettling. Ironic, as the house is named “Settle House”.
The reason for their stay in Settle House is unclear but it’s hinted at that some shocking event, most possibly perpetrated by September, drove them there – whether to hide or escape is the question. What unfolds is a feverish replay of the girls’ time in the house and the months leading up to their withdrawal, though the reliability of the narration isn’t always to be trusted.
While most of the novel is told from the younger July’s first-person perspective and a detached third-person narration told from Sheela’s perspective, it is September’s voice that is the loudest. There is something wicked about her – this is evident in July’s creepy and unwavering devotion to her and Sheela’s treatment of the daughter that she was always slightly frightened of. From the offset, it’s clear that everything isn’t as it should be with the sister, with September’s behaviour being particularly unsettling and the drive behind the novel’s intrigue.
If you’re anything like me, you tend to watch or read mysteries with a fairly strong inkling for what will be the conclusion, and so my disappointment lies perhaps in the novel’s predictable denouement. Much of the novel’s movement between scenes and timelines reminds of the ocean’s flow and this ties in well with the novel’s setting (this is also a very common trope in Johnson’s other literature), and it is therefore not farfetched to think that the flow will eventually lead to a climactic riptide. With the amount of foreshadowing and slow-burn towards something horrific, shocking, and even worse than what the reader has seen so far, the big moment is less “ha!” and more “a, okay”. Perhaps it’s the overconsumption of entertainment that lockdown forced on us or my appeal for shock value, but Sisters is just a hair’s breadth away from being truly mesmerising.
The novel is eerie, with its syntax at times jarring and staccato, mimicking a type of psychosis, and other times slow and suffocating. For a mere 184 pages, I think there is much more to this story and knowing Daisy Johnson, there is an exciting underlayer of gothic elements and folklore waiting for the keen eye to dissect. Unfortunately for me, the untrained (dare I say, uninterested) Gothic reader, it left little room for affect. I just wanted a glorious plot twist, you know?
Don’t agree with me? Get your copy of Sisters and let me know what you thought in the comments!