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.
Sisters, again like Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, is not a book which wastes words: it is tightly constructed, with July's first person narrative driving most of the action. We are in July’s head, and thus we are in September’s head as well. The sisters’ closeness is behind both the joy and uneasiness of Johnson’s novel; they clearly get all they need emotionally from each other, but their exclusion of all others – including their mother – is unhealthy and, there is no other word for it, creepy.
Interspersed with July’s chapters are short interludes in the third person telling the story of the sisters' mother, and her long relationship with the Settle House through her trouble relationship with the girls’ father. These chapters add a crucial layer to the story of the sisters, and do much – when taken together – to explain Sheela's very present absence in the Settle House; there are signs that she is there, from a tidied room to chilli left for dinner, but we rarely see her. Sheela’s sections show how the sisters look from the outside – “her firstborn, running rampage, bloody-nosed child, July tugged behind like a kite” – and, once all the pieces start to come together, raise questions about nature vs nurture and how much we inherit from our parents.
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.