The first two-thirds of Sisters is filled with allusions to the event that lies at the crux of the story; these sprinkled tidbits of information slowly work to clear the dirt away from the truth of what happened. When you discover the details of that event, you might be shocked, like I was, or you might have seen it coming all along. But this book is no cheap thrill – whether you anticipate the twist or not, you’ll still be wowed.
Sisters, a new novel by Booker Prize finalist Daisy Johnson, is a psychological thriller with elements of horror which extend far beyond what simply happens in the plot. Johnson’s writing is at once transparent and opaque, with crisp, meaningful sentences guiding readers through intentionally murky details, establishing character relationships that are case studies in toxicity and abuse.
The book centers around two sisters, September and July, named after the months they were born in less than a year apart. July, who is ten months younger than her sister, is usually the narrator of the book, though the narrative switches to third-person a few times while focusing on the girls’ mother.
July never says that her sister is abusive to her, never quite allows herself to think it. But it is clear that their relationship, and July’s life, is determined by September, who is angry and mean, demanding terrible things out of July and tricking her into thinking it’s a game that she’s in on.
One of these sick games is a version of “Simon says,” which July explains as a game where “September was in charge and I was the puppet and had to do whatever she said.” During one of these games, September instructed July to cut herself on the bottom of her neck.
“I think for a moment maybe I won’t and then I know that I will. The air is concrete. Mum is banging around upstairs but she will not come in time. The game has never gone this way before, although it has always threatened to: September says swallow this tiny battery, go lie in the road when the lights are red,” July says about this incident, saying that she didn’t tell her mother what happened because she knew that her sister would never forgive her.
July and September are enigmatic and impenetrable, even their ages are difficult to discern. They are in their mid-teens during this story, but seem much younger, a fact that is mentioned multiple times. They have been raised only by their mother, Sheela, and their relationship with her is strained by their odd closeness.
Sheela’s life has been fraught with abuse and mental illness. Her depression, which sometimes keeps her bed-bound, is hauntingly referred to as a “smaller, weightier child.” September and July’s father, Peter, who died shortly after the girls were born, was abusive to Sheela when they were together and to his own sister when they were kids. Sheela sees a lot of him in September, but holds herself back from really analyzing what that means.
Despite this awareness, Sheela still fails at her parental duty to protect July from her sister. She notes that “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.”
Sheela expresses helplessness and misplaced jealousy when reflecting on how to parent her children, seemingly giving up on the weird duo and their obviously abusive relationship. Sheela says that she “considered again and again moving them to different schools, enforcing some sort of system of rules, finding a therapist who could see them separately, but she could never quite do it.” After a thorough examination of their toxic relationship, Sheela is still envious of their closeness, and she lets the girls’ poison go unchecked.
Sisters is a meditation on complicated grief and mental illness. It explores, using the language of horror, the nuances of mourning someone who caused you pain, the disgusted relief that could come with it. It looks at how someone can see a cancerous, dying relationship as something to envy: to have someone who loved you so much they would use that love to torture you.
This book, also, understands and sympathizes with the impulse to be needed too much. But it turns that sympathy into a powerful demonstration of how that much need can turn lethal. I would have liked to see July become angrier at some point, to see a glimmer of kindness in September so she isn’t completely irredeemable too. The characters in Sisters are not very multifaceted, but that might be the point. This could happen to anyone, the book says. Watch out – it could even happen to you.
By Daisy Johnson
Published August 25, 2020