NR: Sisters

Published in 2020, Sisters is Daisy Johnson’s second novel and her third book. I discussed her first book, the short story collection Fen, earlier this week and Sisters has a similar feel and literary sensibility to it, though not set in the Fenlands. At its heart is a twist that instantly put me in mind of a rather famous horror novel, but to name drop that would be to give the game away and simply not cricket (though it doesn’t usually stop me).

After some initially unspecified climactic event sisters July and September have moved with their mother to an old family house on the edge of the North York Moors, a property that used to belong to their deceased father and is now owned by his sister. The sisters’ mother is a famous children’s author who has used them as the templates for the heroines in her books. The house is old and unsettling, with strange noises at night and something moving in the walls. More unsettling still is the relationship between the sisters, with July totally dominated by the slightly older September, and there are scenes that seem to imply some sort of telepathic link between these non-twins so that July is able to experience exactly what September is feeling. Their mother is acting strangely too, almost entirely absent from the lives of her daughters. Slowly the back story emerges, how the naïve July was bullied at school and the revenge September planned, and how it all went badly wrong.

Sisters starts slowly, with the eeriness of the setting and the old house seeming to be the focus of the action, the mother’s strange behaviour as a side issue. But as the story progresses and we have the back story filled in, a picture emerges of sibling love and rivalry, one that ultimately lends itself to extreme abuse, albeit July is an unreliable narrator whose fragile mental state is one of the main planks of the story. The snapshots we are given of bullying are convincing and effective in making the reader care for the picked upon July and urge September on to revenge, but at the same time it is obvious that September is slightly unhinged in the way she interacts with everyone else, including both her sister and mother.

Vividly written, one could almost say impressionistic, this short novel offers a compelling tale of sibling rivalry and abuse, with the end pages racing by as our suspicions about the nature of this relationship are confirmed in the most unsettling manner. and in parenthesis it seems legitimate to wonder if, through her literary portrayal of the two girls, their mother has helped create the twisted relationship between them, trapping each in a preordained role. Doubtful at first I became thoroughly won over by Johnson’s evocative prose and clever plotting, her atmospheric rendition of the story’s isolated setting and the element of misdirection that deftly keeps us from seeing the surprise that is waiting in the wings. While no doubt this book is going to be classed as mainstream/literary thanks to its antecedents, it is at heart a superb work of horror fiction, one that will be applauded by the cognoscenti, the kind of book that makes me wonder if genre labels no longer have any relevance except as marketing tools.

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