I received an Advance Uncorrected Proof from the publisher. All opinions are my own. Book on-sale 25 August 2020.
Daisy Johnson’s writing is lush, beautiful, and unsettling. As in her previous novel (read my review of Everything Under here), Johnson plays with the line between reality and fantasy, dreams and mental illness. What is real? What is a perception of a character and what is really going in? It can be hard to tell and yet I never felt as though Johnson was unduly hiding things from the reader.
September and July are as close as two sisters can be. Born just ten months earlier, September is the leader while quiet July follows her sister unquestioningly. Their single mother fled years ago from a violent relationship and now feels like the outsider with her own daughters. After an incident of school bullying, the sisters and their mother have left Oxford and retreated to The Settle House, a rundown country home owned by their deceased father’s family. Their mother has shut herself off from them and the girls are left to their own devices which quickly turns into an increasingly dangerous mischief, led by September.
The story is primarily narrated by July (with occasional chapters from their mother) and within July’s mind we see both her obsession with and fear of September. The girls are so close they can practically read each other’s minds. They share a bed, bathe together, and are never apart. While the reader can clearly see the unhealthy aspects of their relationships, July knows no other life and even her fear of September is less powerful than her fear of being without her sister.
As the story progresses, we learn more about the bullying incident that caused their departure from Oxford. This is an event referred to early on in the book and disclosed at a steady enough pace that it never felt too much like the author was holding back for the sake of plotting. As the story progresses it becomes clear that something greater is amiss between July and September and I could feel that a plot twist was coming. I thought I had figured out what it was but Johnson kept me on my toes, eventually revealing the truth behind these sisters and casting a new light on everything that came before.
In the end, and without giving away any spoilers, this is a book about relationships and grief and it’s beautifully done, capturing these characters in a sort of claustrophobic horror and leaving the reader to decide what the final outcome will really be. Johnson does an excellent job of grounding her story in the real world while still allowing for a fantastical flavour. She is definitely an author to watch.