In her second novel, Sisters, Daisy Johnson throws us into the world of siblings September and July – named for their birth months and less than a year apart in age – as they go with their mother to an old family home named the Settle House, escaping their life in Oxford after a terrible unnamed thing has happened.
What that unknown thing is can seem, at first, like the book’s central mystery, but Johnson’s cleverness is in making you soon realise it’s the relationship between the sisters – and not what they might have done or what might have happened to them – that is the most interesting and captivating thing.
In some ways, July and September are descendants of Cassandra and Topaz Mortmain from Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle: rattling around an empty and decaying house with nothing to entertain them except each other. In other ways, they seem linked to Constance and Merricat Blackwood from Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle; there's more to them than meets the eye, and that more has a sinister edge to it. You never quite know what you'll get with July and September, and without spoiling it too much, that unknowing has more in common with Jackson's work than Smith’s.
In the style of reviews, it would be easy to say that Johnson’s book builds to a devastating conclusion, but that wouldn’t accurately represent what Sisters is, or how it works. Devastating “conclusions” are dotted throughout the novel, as Johnson slowly reveals the multiple layers of love and rivalry that again and again lead to tension and, ultimately, change the way you see the events of the novel in its entirety.
"My sister is a black hole," reads the first sentence of Johnson's novel. It's a perfect description of September and July's relationship: a section of space that has such an intense gravitational field that it proves inescapable. And it also works as a way to describe the reading of the novel itself: Johnson’s prose and poetry is captivating and inescapable and, a bit like July and September in the Settle House, you don’t ever want to leave it.