By Daisy Johnson
Daisy Johnson’s new novel, “Sisters,” starts with a journey that ends at a house in the middle of nowhere. Sheela, a children’s writer, has driven from Oxford to the eastern edge of the North York Moors with her teenage daughters, September and July, our narrator for much of the book, in the back seat. It’s spring and the sun is shining; the sea is just over the fields. But there is no sense of anticipation or relief as the car bumps down the track and pulls up outside the house, known locally as the Settle House. The party has not traveled hopefully, and this is not a holiday: “Mum said, getting into the car, Let’s make it before night. And then nothing else for a long time. We imagine what she might say: This is your fault, or, We would never have had to leave if you hadn’t done what you did. And what she means, of course, is if we hadn’t been born. If we hadn’t been born at all.”
So the travelers bring problems with them, and on arrival find plenty more. The empty house, owned by the girls’ aunt, is ramshackle, and not in a charming way: It sags and bulges, “squatting” in a mess of broken roof tiles, old scaffolding, thorn bushes and sheep excrement. Also, the key has not been left in the appointed place. The sisters break in through the pantry window and find a muddle of damp, filthy, nasty-smelling rooms: As with Shirley Jackson’s Hill House, “the layout of the house feels wrong, unintuitive.”
When the girls remember to let her in, Sheela grabs her duvet and pushes past them up the stairs, shutting herself in a room and staying there, pretty much, for the rest of the novel — an ever-present absence. “She has been sad before but it was not the same as this. This is worse.” From time to time the reader is shown things as Sheela sees them, and her haunted testimony does not always tally with July’s account. Before too long, the novel is exhibiting the vivid unreliability of a fever dream.
The sisters — 15-year-old July, full of fears and superstitions, in thrall to wild, unbiddable September, the elder by 10 months — are left to their own devices. They scavenge meals from old tins, watch David Attenborough documentaries, dress up, take baths and play strange games. They hardly see anyone else, apart from a broadband engineer and a boy on the beach, and this seems to suit them, until it doesn’t. There are moments when July misses her mother and their old intimacy but September won’t let her mope for long. September makes it her business always to be there, right at the heart of her sister’s existence, cajoling, comforting, shielding her where necessary. If July feels her own signal is weak, September’s is strong and insistent. Is September protecting July, or is something else going on? It’s a Gothic setup, a clutch of damaged individuals stuck in an isolated ruin, and Johnson’s bold and impressionistic writing locates the story on the boundary between fable and horror.
Some terrible event has driven the family from Oxford: There are hints about a fight at school, a dead badger, a storm and something ghastly that happened near the old tennis courts. This episode, it becomes clear, is rooted in a family dynamic established at the Settle House long before the girls were born. Sheela can never escape the grim gravitational pull of the girls’ dead father, a destructive and controlling man (“Peter like a ship on fire in the night, sails alight and taking all the other boats with it”) whose relationship with his sister, the owner of the Settle House, was also troubled. The house is riddled with this wretched history. It’s in the beams and joists, like dry rot. No wonder the place is falling down. Sheela understands this: After all, she too is structurally unsound. “She was rebelling against herself, refusing her meaningful living, and the house was doing the same.”
So the narrative keeps circling back to past events, building up a powerful atmosphere of doom and dread in a manner that occasionally feels a little overwrought — as if nothing bad has been left unimagined. At the same time there’s a fair amount of energetic foreshadowing going on, a sense that (oh, God) we are barreling toward something even worse, some appalling, revelatory climax. Yet this moment, when it finally arrives, is quite brilliantly handled, psychologically persuasive and a proper shock.
“Sisters” is a gripping ordeal, a relentlessly macabre account of grief and guilt, identity and codependency, teenage girls and their mothers. Crammed with disturbing images and powered by a dare-to-look-away velocity, it reminded me, in its general refusal to play nice, of early Ian McEwan. Johnson, a British writer whose first novel, “Everything Under,” was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, is as tough on her readers as she is on her characters: There’s a section toward the end when you think she might be about to offer a glimmer of hope, a chink of light, but you turn the page and the darkness rises again, cold as the North Sea. Her message is blunt and bleak: “Love was not enough in the end, not that kind of love.”