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Sisters by Daisy Johnson review – a confection of horror tropes rendered in poetic prose

On a summer’s day, two girls and their mother move into a house on the North Yorkshire coast. The sisters’ whimsical names – July and September – belie the darkness of the gothic tale that weaves itself around them. The house, too, is ironically named; the Settle House, full of mysterious sounds and shifting air, is anything but settled.

Sisters by Daisy Johnson book cover

July and September are uncommonly close: “It would have surprised neither of us to have found, slit open, that we shared organs.” They are also unusually guileless, and at first I assumed they were pre-teen children. They delight in childish games: hide and seek, dressing up, their own bastardised version of Simon Says. Their mother Sheela describes them as “clever but stunted, naive, happily young”. But their bond is neither as innocently happy nor as equal as it initially appears. There are telling differences between them: “September was the ringleader,” Sheela thinks, “but July was the one who suffered.” In fact, they are on the cusp of womanhood and September, the elder by ten months, is beginning to break away from her sister.

Like Johnson’s previous novel Everything Under, this story revels in uncertainty and lives among the things that lurk on the murky, muddy edges of memory. The family comes to the Settle House, which belongs to the sisters’ aunt, because of something that happened to July and September at school. This incident is something none of the characters are willing to look at head-on; their journey towards a confrontation with the truth is what gives the book its momentum. Until they are able to tackle this thing that haunts them, the house will remind them, seeming to distort and alter at every turn.

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Most of the book is narrated by July, but she often slips into the first-person plural when describing herself alongside September. They seem to shadow one another, bleed into one another – “unfinished doppelgängers” – pulling apart only when September’s cruel capriciousness surfaces. (Readers of Shirley Jackson will not fail to be reminded of Merricat and Constance Blackwood.) We also see a little of the story from Sheela’s point of view, providing a subtle but essential shift in perspective. Sisters leads the reader along in a dance – just when you think you’ve got it figured out, Johnson wrongfoots you.

Sisters is quick and sharp; it cuts deep and fast. This deceptively slender book teems with disquiet; sitting down to review it, I realised the story has many more hidden details than one might assume. “This is the year we are haunted,” our protagonists tell us at the beginning, and this theme permeates every scene and underlies every interaction, whether the object of the “haunting” is a house or a person. It’s a confection of horror tropes rendered in poetic prose, all the way to the unnerving, suggestive ending.

Sisters by Daisy Johnson is published by Jonathan Cape.

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