I have not yet read British author Daisy Johnson’s short story collection, Fen, but following on from how much I enjoyed her debut novel, Everything Under (review here), I could not resist picking up Sisters. Johnson is highly praised by her contemporaries, with Max Porter calling her ‘one of the best writers in this country’, and Karen Russell an ‘enchantress’.
Sisters is a slim novel, at just under 180 pages. However, it packs an awful lot in. It follows two protagonists, sisters July and September, who were born just ten months apart, and are inseparable. They have spent their childhoods in Oxford, but after an incident at school, their mother – who is ‘desperate for a fresh start’ – moves them to a secluded part of northern England. They are heading up ‘the bone of the country’ when the first chapter begins.
The family-owned house which they move into ‘has a troubled life of its own. Noises come from behind the walls. Lights flicker of their own accord. Sleep feels impossible, dreams are endless.’ In July’s first chapter, she comments: ‘This is the house we have come to. This is the house we have left to find. Beached up on the side of the North York Moors, only just out of the sea.’
Once they move, and adapt to the rhythms of their new locations, the relationship between fifteen-year-old July and sixteen-year-old September begins to shift. Much of their relationship is still rooted within their childhood; they continually play games like hide and seek with one another. Their mother, who writes and illustrates adventure stories for a living, is unreachable; she has ‘been this way, taciturn or silent, ever since what happened at school… She would speak only stray phrases to us, barely meeting our eyes. She is a different person in a recognisable body…’.
The novel is narrated largely from July’s perspective, and this focus on one sister worked very well. I enjoy Johnson’s writing, and it feels as though she really managed to get to the crux of her young protagonists, in all of their teenage complexity. Another of Johnson’s real strengths is the way in which she depicts the countryside; although beautiful, she shows that there is always an element of bleakness, of starkness, about it. Johnson paints things as they are, aware of their realism; for instance, when she writes: ‘The house is here. Squatting like a child by the small slate wall, the empty sheep field behind pitted with old excrement, thorn bushes tall as a person.’ She is able, in this manner, to capture the natural world in all of its wildness, and its untamed state.
Sisters is such a readable novel, which offers a couple of surprises along the way. There is something sinister about it, and the atmosphere builds as the story moves forward – and backward – in time. The novel is peppered with quite unsettling scenes; for instance, when July wakes to this: ‘Something is crouched on top of me as I sleep. I cannot open my eyes. There is breath on my face, hot, and the grind of what feels like fists on my chest… I can’t move, my arms and legs are stiff by my sides… There is a figure above me, bearing down, their face is almost recognisable but then there is darkness and they are gone.’ I even found the novel’s short poetic prologue rather chilling. It ends: ‘My sister is a forest on fire. // My sister is a sinking ship. // My sister is the last house on the street.’
Sisters is a novel about sisters, as the title suggests, but theirs is a complex and volatile kinship. The examination and exploration which Johnson presents of their relationship almost feels claustrophobic at times. There is not a great deal of plot within Sisters; rather, it is focused almost entirely upon its characters and their interactions. Regardless, Johnson manages to cover rather a lot of ground in this piece of domestic noir. There is a well-judged urgency which shows itself just when it needs to. Johnson is certainly an author to watch, and whilst I do not know if this novel will prove to be as memorable as Everything Under, I very much enjoyed the reading experience.