Victoria’s Book Reviews: Sisters by Daisy Johnson

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“This the year something else is the terror.”

Ooh, this is an interesting one; one very much for the gothic lovers amongst us and those that crave psychological suspense. It doesn’t surprise me that this novel from Daisy – the first that I have read of this much-heralded new writer – has been compared to the likes of Shirley Jackson and Daphne du Maurier. Perhaps that’s a rather heady comparison (Daphne and Shirley were masters of this craft, after all) but Sisters is certainly a story that looks to conjure up that same blur of reality and magical realism, and a sense of the otherworldly.

The sisters the novel speaks of are September and July – September being the elder one by 10 months – two teenage girls who have been suddenly pulled out of school following an (unspecified) accident and whisked away by the mother to a cottage from their youth, one that belongs to their aunt, for rest and recuperation.

The girls’ mother, it seems, is appalled and distraught, communicating little with her girls; the girls, it seems, are rather left to themselves to sort things out between them. But theirs is a dark, toxic sisterly bond and soon their relationship spirals into dangerous and even deadly territory…

“September was the ringleader but July was the one who suffered.”

What emerges in Daisy’s writing are two key elements that I really responded to: the sick, symbiotic relationship between the sisters. There is psychological bullying, yes, but also manipulation and an eerie form of syncopation and mutuality between the girls:

“There is something leaving me and I realise with a shock it is my virginity. Going, going, gone. Taken in a second-hand way. September is having sex and – because really two means one – I am having sex too. I close my eyes, ball my fists into the sand.”

There is no doubt that the development and representation of this sisterhood is a critical success in the book, but I also loved the way Daisy was able to develop the cottage itself as a living organism, as if that too was part of the ebb and flow of the dynamic of the three women who lived inside it. It is THIS element that brings in the comparison with the masters because this world creation was what set Shirley and Daphne above everyone else, as if the worlds they created were too involved in the gothic webs they weaved:

“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.”

This weaving of women’s bodies, sex, sisterhood with the physical world reminded me a lot of surrealist works by the likes of Dorothea Tanning and Frida Kahlo. Intriguing and a novel that stands out in its originality in comparison with other publications this year.

 

Sisters by Daisy Johnson will be published by Jonathan Cape / Vintage Books on 13 August 20202; hardback RRP £14.99.

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