This is one of those books that’s so propulsive that you want to devour it in one sitting, even as the harrowing nature of what you’re reading is telling you to maybe put it aside and take a nap, for the sake of your own mental health.
Sisters follows September and July, two teenage girls separated by ten months in age, as their mother Sheela takes them away from their Oxford home after a school bullying incident. Their new home, at least temporarily, is The Settle House belonging to their dead father’s family, usually let out to tenants and generally in a state of disrepair, high on the Yorkshire coast. Once there, Sheela gives in to the depression that has plagued her for most of her life, while her daughters become more and more enmeshed in the strange games they play with one another and with whomever crosses their path.
This is the weirdly wonderful kind of book with a plot that’s difficult to describe for fear of spoilers. Even going in blind, I figured out what the big twist was at the 20% mark, and spent the rest of the novel waiting for confirmation of my theory as well as details as to how it all came to pass. I must say that I wasn’t disappointed, as I can sometimes be by horror stories, as this essentially is. I think a little more time could have been spent on the pathology that made the women of this family so susceptible to what happened: I get that Peter was abusive and Sheela never emotionally stable to begin with, but a large part of me thought the plot relied too much on a shrugging “I guess that’s just genetics!” instead of looking into how September got away with being a total psychopath for as long as she did. I also wish the text had been a little more clear with what happened afterward. I enjoyed the hallucinatory, smothering feeling of July’s struggle to escape her sister, but the second time jump created more questions than it answered. The first time jump was ambiguous enough without adding a coda that only served to obscure the story even more than it had been already.
I definitely enjoyed this more than Daisy Johnson’s debut, the Booker Prize shortlisted Everything Under, in large part due to the fact that Sisters feels less self-consciously literary, as well as less contrived. It’s also really hard to put down, as the fragmented narrative demands that you keep reading just one more chapter, one more page, to get to the bottom of the nightmare plaguing this poor family. It’s a high concept horror novel that mostly succeeds, in large part due to Ms Johnson’s elegant, atmospheric writing.
Sisters by Daisy Johnson was published August 25th 2020 by Riverhead Books and is available from all good booksellers, including
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