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26 August 2020

Daisy Johnson’s atmospheric horror novel, Sisters

The Booker-shortlisted author's second novel captures the pull of an obsessive relationship. 

By Anna Leszkiewicz

In Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel The Virgin Suicides, a group of teenage boys are so captivated by the Lisbon sisters – five mysterious teenage girls, shut up together in their family home – that they procure the youngest sister’s diary after she dies by suicide at  13. “Cecilia writes of her sisters and herself as a single entity,” they observe, reading it. “It’s often difficult to identify which sister she’s talking about, and many strange sentences conjure in the reader’s mind an image of a mythical creature with ten legs and five heads, lying in bed eating junk food.”

Daisy Johnson’s Sisters is a short, atmospheric horror novel full of strange sentences, claustrophobic rooms and distorted, converging bodies. September and July are best friends as well as sisters; born less than a year apart, one is almost never without the other. “Sometimes I think I can remember the days when we were so small we slept in one cot, four hands twisting above our heads, seeing the world from exactly the same viewpoint,” July – who narrates the majority of the novel – tells us.

Now 16 and 15 respectively, September and July seem less developed than their peers: “Clever but stunted, naive, happily young.” September is impulsive and domineering; July malleable, anxious, following her elder sister like a shadow. They have no friends, and are closer than ever – but it is a clammy, airless closeness, one that often leaves July confused about where September ends and she begins. “Through the palm of September’s hand I think I could probably hear the slow motion of her thoughts if I listened well enough,” July thinks. Looking in the mirror, she feels “a shock at seeing my own face looking back rather than hers”.

The novel opens as September, July and their somewhat vacant mother, Sheela, drive from their old house in Oxford to start a new life in an isolated and dilapidated cottage on the edge of the North York Moors. They are fleeing a traumatic event that took place between the sisters and a group of other schoolgirls in March, that is only vaguely alluded to (“It had been September’s idea to get those girls to the old tennis court, to teach them a lesson, to scare them a bit”).

The new house is “rankled, bentoutashape, dirtyallover” – the outside surrounded by plastic bags and broken plant pots, the inside coated in dirt and dead flies. The building itself seems disturbed and even violent: a bulb breaks suddenly, leaving shattered glass below; July burns herself unexpectedly on a searing hot radiator. “I can feel all the rooms behind me,” July thinks. “It is impossible to face every part of the house at once.” Ironically named “The Settle House”, this is a restless, unsettling and lonely place. As well as the stale, cluttered bedrooms of The Virgin Suicides, it has echoes of Shirley Jackson’s Hill House, the rusty, moss-coated grange in Tennyson’s “Mariana”, the “spiteful” haunted house in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and, inevitably, the bleak landscapes and inseparable, feral childhoods of Wuthering Heights.

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The novel will also seem familiar to readers of Johnson’s other work. Her books – a collection of short fiction, Fen (which contained stories titled “A Heavy Devotion” and “A Bruise the Shape and Size of a Door Handle”), her debut novel Everything Under (which made Johnson the youngest author ever shortlisted for the Booker Prize), and now Sisters – seem to emerge from the same eerie wilderness. Johnson has cultivated a striking style with recurring images and themes: uncanny, watery landscapes; homes that turn against their inhabitants; animalistic characters with intense, almost incestuous family bonds; private, primitive languages; bodies that bloat and transform.

Johnson’s stories contain minimal dialogue and very little straightforward narration. They are instead characterised by the accumulation of sensory detail, the gradual revealing of character, and a building sense of dread. Her sentences are alert to texture, sound and smell, as well as physiological sensations harder to name: the “bite of  almost fear in my temples”, the “numb buzz of realisation”.

The sisters’ relationship seems increasingly uncomfortable. They play “September says”, a game that begins innocently enough – “September says cross your eyes” – but progresses into a threatening zone: “September says cut off your fingernails and put them in the milk. Cut off all your hair. September says lie down under the bed for an hour. Run into the road.” July is completely unable to say no to her sister: “Her anger is like a tide, tugging me towards it.” When, in one game, “September says cut yourself here,” July admits, “I think for a moment maybe I won’t and then I know I will.”

Of all Johnson’s work, Sisters is the easiest to categorise – this is her take on horror, and it contains several tropes of the genre. At times it feels as indebted to cinema as it does to the work of Jackson and Stephen King, with its jump scares and shock imagery. (In the acknowledgements, Johnson thanks her mother, “for watching horror films she doesn’t really want to watch with me”.) July wedges herself into a space hidden between the walls of the house; she hears “the rattle of fast-moving feet nearing me”, then, abruptly, “silence. I open my eyes. There is no one there.” At night, an increasingly manic July crawls “along the floor, facing upwards, my elbows bent back, like a crab”. (In one particularly gruesome scene of self-harm, I allowed my eyes to unfocus on the page, reading every other word as though watching a film through my fingers.)

The novel’s final, psychological twist veers towards the pulpy, and might leave some readers feeling cheated – but Johnson’s commitment to her characters, her interest in complex relationships and power dynamics, her atmospheric style and an unresolved, ambiguous ending elevate the novel beyond its plot.

Johnson’s insight is to understand the irresistible pull of an all-consuming relationship; the thrill of a feverish, girlish collapse of boundaries. “It was only when September was around that colour returned,” July explains. At a party, she sees her sister through the eyes of strangers, holding their image of September alongside her own special understanding of her. “Yes. I think then as I have so many times, she is the person I have always wanted to be. I am a shape cut out of the universe, tinged with ever-dying stars – and she is the creature to fill the gap I leave in the world.”

Daisy Johnson
Jonathan Cape, 192pp, £14.99

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