“A must-read for fans of the modern Gothic” – Sisters by Daisy Johnson

“Grief is a house with no windows or doors and no way of telling the time.”

djspbMy feelings about this promising writer are thus: impressed by her short story collection, Fen (2016); ambivalent about her début novel Everything Under (2018); excited and inspired by her latest, Sisters. Still early in her career, I can only hope that Daisy Johnson will continue to develop and grow as an author and not be burned out by the incredible demands made by the publishing industry on the writers of today.

The writing in Sisters is taut and direct and full of interesting imagery. From the very beginning Johnson draws the reader in:

“A house. Slices of it through the hedge, across the fields. Dirty white windows sunk into the brick. Hand in hand in the back seat, the arrow of light from the sunroof. Two of us, shoulder-to-shoulder, sharing air.”

It’s a fine introduction to the setting and to the two main characters and their relationship. It’s obvious that the house is itself a character and plays an important part in the story. Already there is a sense of unease, menace even, and a portent of things to come. Uncertainty pervades every nook and cranny of the novel.

July and September are just ten months apart in age. September is the elder, more outgoing and daring one. She has a nasty, manipulative streak, but is also highly protective of her sister. July is shy and timid and lives in September’s shadow, both in actual and symbolic terms. She will do what September tells her to and in difficult situations will wait for her older sister to do the talking. They are close, to the extent that could be deemed unhealthy. Here July explains:

“When one of us speaks we both feel the words moving on our tongues. When one of us eats we both feel the food slipping down our gullets. It would have surprised neither of us to have found, slit open, that we shared organs, that one’s lungs breathed for the both, that a single heart beat a doubling, feverish pulse.”

Apart from a couple of chapters which are written in the voice of their mother, Sheela, it is July who narrates her family’s story and tells how their move from Oxford to Settle House on the North Yorkshire Moors came about.

Much of the novel is really the backstory to why the relocation occurred, but Johnson cleverly structures it in such a way that it becomes part of the present and the way life is now. Johnson is clearly influenced by Gothic storytellers like Daphne Du Maurier, Shirley Jackson, Stephen King, and Edgar Allan Poe. Echoes of all these writers sound all the way through Sisters.

Settle House, with its crumpling walls, decaying structures and lights that turn on and off, apparently of their own accord, certainly has Poe’s stamp all over it. And why not? Like Kazuo Ishiguro did with the Arthurian legend in The Buried Giant (2015), for example, and Maggie O’Farrell has done by reimagining the life of Shakespeare’s son, in Hamnet (2020), Johnson chooses to follow the current trend of bringing the myths and classics into the present. In Everything Under it was the Oedipus story which served as her inspiration.

Settle House is owned by the sister of the girls’ dead father, Peter. It is the house in which he was born and in which September was born too. Although he was abusive to his wife and she had left him, Sheela grieves for him. An illustrator of children’s books, she shuts herself into her bedroom for days on end, working, using her daughters as models, emerging only at night after they have gone to bed. September and July are left to their own devices, playing children’s games like hide-and-seek, a form of Simon says and dressing up. They watch a lot of  TV and eat the contents of out-of-date tins of food left by previous occupants of the house. They don’t attend school in their new location.

Although a relatively minor presence in the novel, Sheela’s influence is, nevertheless, significant. She identifies with the house that was once her home and to which she has now returned. Her uncanny way of thinking give added weight to the narrative:

“She has always known that houses are bodies and that her body is a house in more ways than most. She had housed those beautiful daughters, hadn’t she, and she had housed depression all through her life like a smaller, weightier child, and she housed excitement and love and despair and in the Settle House she houses an unsettling worry that she finds difficult to shake; an exhaustion that smothers the days out of her.”

Sheela’s insight into her family is important to the integrity of the story:

“September could make her sister do anything. Had always been able to. The way September was with July sometimes reminded her of how Peter had been with her: his withholding of love for tactical advantage, the control concealed within silky folds of care. It wasn’t the same, she thought over and over. September was not like that man. Except sometimes she wondered.”

When we eventually learn of the event which caused the family to leave Oxford it seems like an overreaction to the naive behaviour of a teenager who is not alert to the tricks others of her age group are capable of. Indeed, it is a notion that chimes directly with what their mother says about her daughters. Sheela describes them as “clever but stunted, naive, happily young”.

Everything has consequences, even when it’s not clear what they might be. July feels it in her bones. A sense of foreboding invades her, that morning in Oxford, as Sheela drives the girls to school:

“The road outside the school was chock-a-block with traffic and we got out and walked up. I could feel the static in my fingers. The unease was like a half-digested meal. I took September’s hand again and, that time, she must have felt something because she turned to look at me. ‘What is it, July-bug?'”

The unexpected twist to the story comes a few pages from the end, when thinking back over July’s style of  narration and description of things, an astute reader will realise that the signs have been there from the beginning of the novel.

Like Johnson’s début novel, Everything Under, Sisters revels in exploring the muddy waters of memory, the shadowy suspension of belief and the mind’s propensity to play tricks. It is a deserving contender for forthcoming book awards.

Any Cop?: An intriguing blend of classic Gothic storytelling styles made contemporary for the twenty first century. A must-read for fans of the modern Gothic.

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