Sisters by Daisy Johnson
Published by Jonathan Cape, 2020
Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Two teenage sisters flee with their mother to a remote family-owned property following the girls’ involvement in a terrible incident. The insidious relationship between the sisters, and the mystery of precisely what unfolded between them and a group of school bullies form the core of this atmospheric chiller.
Johnson does a fantastic job of capturing both the fierce love and the cruelty that teenage girls are capable of, and the strange ways they are often compelled by society to place themselves in competition with each other. At times, sisters July and September read like adults, while at others they seem incredibly immature. This does well not only to highlight the oddity (and the sinister undertones) of childhood games, but also the precarious tipping point of adolescence, when no matter how eager you are to grow up, fundamentally you remain a child; hampered by much of the naivety and vulnerability that come with youth.
Initially, I thought the prose felt overdone, but there’s no denying that Johnson writes well. The headiness of the text quickly won me round, adding to the book’s oppressive, stifling atmosphere.
It always sounds a little pretentious when someone says of a book that hinges around a crucial twist, “I predicted it from the off”, but the truth is I really did in this case. As much as I loved the themes at play and the overall feeling Johnson was evoking, there’s no denying that the book just doesn’t land with the same impact when you’re several steps ahead of the big reveal. It’s hard to talk about any of the other slight quibbles I had without resorting to spoilers, so I’ll simply say I wish a couple of plot points had been followed up on more, I felt the author took the easy way out concerning a certain trope, and the use of a fake-out ending didn’t wholly work for me.
Still, I enjoyed the time I spent with this one, and its look at obsession, guilt, and autonomy is really compelling. There are also a couple of deeply unsettling moments that will stick with me. In fact, I’d love to see Johnson write a novel that leans even further into horror; this was definitely at its strongest when she did so. Richly atmospheric, it is certainly a read I’d recommend; but I’d urge you to go in knowing as little as possible, in the hope it is able to catch you off-guard.