Book Review

Sisters by Daisy Johnson

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.

Sisters is a short novel and one that has a sense of strangeness about it from the beginning.  It focuses on July and her older sister – by ten months – September.  Theirs is a strange relationship.  There’s no sense of the usual sibling rivalry that you might expect to find in sisters – particularly given how close they are in age – as July seems completely happy to let her sister take the lead in all things, even when September decides that they should both share a birthday (hers) rather than having one each.  Their games as children, particularly their take on “Simon Says” occasionally stray into dangerous territory, always with July at risk rather than September.  I feel that September is perhaps trying to see how far she can push things, and how much she can get away with, which is seemingly a lot as July, even when uncomfortable, will do as she’s told. 

Despite this strange relationship and September’s poor treatment of her sister, there is also a real sense of affection between them and the strange games are interspersed with moments of real tenderness.  They are inseparable, much to their mother’s chagrin, and best friends as well as sisters, seeming to reject all others in favour of each other.  It’s a decidedly odd relationship, and I never really got a sense for why these characters behave as they do. I don’t understand September’s motivation, and the only explanation for July’s behaviour seems to be that she fears that the good times – those moments of companionship and tenderness between them – would disappear if she doesn’t put up with the bad times, but that’s just seems like such an awful situation to be in that I wasn’t wholly convinced by it. 

Sisters is a novel that is difficult to review without giving anything away.  It opens with the family moving from Oxford to Yorkshire and while it’s clear that something has happened – something serious enough to warrant a fresh start – what that is isn’t immediately clear. On arriving at a rundown cottage, their mother, Sheela, shuts herself away, leaving July and September to fend for themselves. It’s a strange scenario, and while I had my suspicions as to what had happened, I have to admit that the revelation when it comes is still shocking. 

With fewer than 200 pages, Sisters is a short novel that is somewhat reminiscent of the works of Shirley Jackson.  It’s eerie from the beginning, and I found it unsettling without being able to say exactly why I was unsettled by it until later in the novel.  It’s an intriguing read, but one that I suspect will have a niche appeal given the slightly odd writing style – it’s told in short, sharp sentences – and the ambiguity surrounding the behaviour of the characters.

Sisters is published by Vintage and is available now in hardback, digital, and audio formats. The paperback is currently scheduled for release in June.


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