Verdict: Creepy, tense, unsettling – let down by the ending.
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Genre: Psychological Horror/ Literary Fiction
Published by Jonathan Cape, August 13th 2020
After a serious case of school bullying becomes too much to bear, sisters July and September move across the country with their mother to a long-abandoned family home.
In their new and unsettling surroundings, July finds that the deep bond she has always had with September – a closeness that not even their mother is allowed to penetrate – is starting to change in ways she cannot entirely understand.
Inside the house the tension among the three women builds, while outside the sisters meet a boy who tests the limits of their shared experiences.
With its roots in psychological horror, Sisters is a taut, powerful and deeply moving account of sibling love that cements Daisy Johnson’s place as one of the most inventive and exciting young writers at work today.
I read this mostly on the strength of Johnson’s debut novel and did not really know what to expect from it. The blurb is intentionally vague and I was unprepared for how creepy this book was. I was hooked from the very beginning though, racing through this book breathlessly, torn between wanting to keep reading and dreading what was to come – that something is not quite right with September and July is obvious from the beginning. Johnson skillfully leads the reader through her labyrinthian narrative told from the perspective of July, the younger of the two sisters and the more quiet and withdrawn one, always in the shadow of her slightly older and domineering sister September. The sibling relationship is at the core of this novel (and I am always a fan of well-told sibling stories) and that it feels so real is one of the big strengths. Their relationship is creepy and obsessive, they are so close to each other that even their mother has no place in their vincinity. Parts told in third person from their mother’s perspective underscore how weirdly codependent the two sisters are. September often treats July abysmally, and Johnson leans into the inherent creepiness of children’s games when she has her teenaged main characters play them with an increasing escalation of violence.
After some tragedy the family leaves Oxford for a house by the ocean owned by their dead father’s sister; here the mother takes to her room and leaves her daughters to roam Settle House, which is just as unsettling as the name indicates. The tragedy in the wake of July being bullied at school is one of the central mysteries of the book as July does not seem to remember what exactly happened that made her mother abruptly leave Oxford and decide to live in a house she hates as it brings only bad memories of the abusive father of her children. July’s narration is often unclear and I early began wondering how reliable she was, as her mind seems to be fragmenting. The novel works best when Johnson plays with this unreality she invokes, when it isn’t at all clear what is happening. Her fragmented, allusion-rich prose coupled with her vivid and unsettling imagery mirror’s July’s mental state excellently. As such the ending, when things became more clear again, did not work for me as well as the parts that preceeded it. But even so, the pitch perfect prose and an impressively oppressive atmosphere made this a rewarding reading experience that I was nevertheless ultimately glad to be done with – this book gave me nightmares.
Content warnings: bullying, assault, revenge porn, vomit, underage drinking, blackouts, depression, spousal abuse, death of a loved one
I received an ARC of this book courtesy of NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review.