There are echoes of Johnson’s influences throughout. September controls July, though we never hear from her directly; the reader recalls Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. The twisting of the plot nods, perhaps, to Sarah Waters; and Johnson has said that the work of Stephen King has been important to her (though it is a step too far when the girls dress as the twins in The Shiningfor Halloween). The book is shot through with horror, keeping the tension at a fever pitch even in moments of quiet.
Sisters is a small but perfectly formed novel. Readers put off by Johnson’s promising but imperfect 2016 collection, Fen, or the magical realist tendencies of Everything Under would do well to give her a second chance. In Sisters, Johnson’s predilection for the abject, the monstrous and the ominous are marshalled to real purpose, revealing a writer whose precocious talents seem bound only to increase with every new work.
As usual in Johnson’s fiction, the atmosphere is thick with menace. In bed at night, July feels a strange figure crouching on top of her. September orders her to eat an entire jar of mayonnaise and draw a razor across her throat. There’s an increasingly tense bout of hide-and-seek, in which September seems to disappear into a wall. Doomy cadences play their part. ‘That was the day I had promised her everything a person could promise,’ July tells us of a dare gone wrong.
Johnson pulls off a great feat in this book. We are propelled by her story, even while we barely know what it is; absorbed by characters at once abstract yet fully drawn. She allows just enough clarity to pierce through, like flashes of an image amid white noise, until finally we can grasp and appreciate the whole picture that has so thrillingly eluded us.
The novel’s final, psychological twist veers towards the pulpy, and might leave some readers feeling cheated – but Johnson’s commitment to her characters, her interest in complex relationships and power dynamics, her atmospheric style and an unresolved, ambiguous ending elevate the novel beyond its plot. Johnson’s insight is to understand the irresistible pull of an all-consuming relationship; the thrill of a feverish, girlish collapse of boundaries. “It was only when September was around that colour returned,” July explains. At a party, she sees her sister through the eyes of strangers, holding their image of September alongside her own special understanding of her.
“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.”
The fact that most readers will see the final twist coming doesn’t undermine its power. Indeed, there’s something interesting in the way that Johnson uses readerly expectation and generic convention to her advantage, timing her revelations perfectly, allowing the reader to hear echoes of other writers without the novel ever feeling derivative or formulaic... The fact that the plot of Sisters follows relatively well-worn paths allows Johnson to be more inventive and experimental in her use of language and in her characterisation. This is a novel Shirley Jackson would have been proud to have written: terrifically well-crafted, psychologically complex and chillingly twisted.
Sisters is an easier beast than Everything Under, but the creeping, physical menace that made Johnson’s debut so memorable commands this book, too. A fashionable impressionism is at work in the opening pages, but it settles into something more readable and more potent. There’s something horrible yet half-known afoot – mysterious marks on July’s body, vanishing footsteps – and July is not “able to tell yet what the fear is of, only that it is enormous”. There are hints here that will reward re-reading but it also makes an immediate impression – there’s a weight to it which doesn’t shift when you put it down.
Sisters is a slim story with a lot happening: parenting, bullying, mental health, psychological horror. It’s a book less likely to cheer you up than screw you up (even a spot of DIY turns sinister), but Johnson’s uniquely lopsided world is oddly compelling, and bracing too, like a cliffside walk on a stormy day. You may end up with tears in your eyes, but at least it will blow the cobwebs away.
Johnson uses words like some artists use paint, saturating her sentences with images and sensations in ways that lend a delirious, sensorial quality to her writing, yet which can also have an enervating impact on the actual plot.
But just when you wonder where this hallucinatory novel is going, Johnson beautifully wrong-foots you with a shivery denouement that makes the ghosts in her story all too real.
Sheela feels a kinship with the ramshackle building, likening herself to its empty, foreboding structure. The unspeakable thing that happens is, of course, revealed in the closing chapters, and Johnson’s powerful storytelling means the moment creeps up on you, catching you unaware even after hours of wide-eyed reading without moving an inch. A masterful follow-up to her debut, Johnson’s novel is quietly terrifying and certainly an apt read for 2020.
While the sibling dynamic is crafted with nuance and precision, Sheela, a children’s book writer and illustrator, never comes clearly into view. It doesn’t help that she barely emerges from her room. Attempts at biography remain very much that. More successful is Johnson’s unusual prose. She drops verbs, changes the natural cadence of sentences, investing the narrative with a rhythmic, visceral energy. And she doesn’t hold back on symbolism. Physical surroundings match July’s inner turmoil.
To say that the second novel from the youngest author to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize (for Everything Under) is keenly awaited is an understatement. July narrates as she and her older sister September are driven by their mother to a rental house on the North Yorkshire coast. They are fleeing their home in Oxford after something undisclosed but awful happened at the girls' school. What follows is a transfixing tale of claustrophobic literary horror, of a smothering sibling relationship in a decaying house. And the ending? Wow.