Book Review: Sisters by Daisy Johnson

Sisters – Daisy Johnson (Riverhead Books, 2020)

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.

15 thoughts on “Book Review: Sisters by Daisy Johnson”

  1. Great review! This sounds like the perfect mix of literary, creepy, and thrilling, and I really look forward to this one. I haven’t yet read Everything Under—which do you think is a better introduction to her work? 🙂

    1. Ooh, good question! I think you could really start with either and get a good sense of her style. I kind of want to say Everything Under but that might just be because I read it first. She also has a short story collection that I haven’t read but have heard good things about.

    2. Thanks for your thoughts! Good to know I can start either way, at least. I also want to start with Everything Under because it’s been on my TBR forever, but a shiny new release is hard to resist, so we’ll see!

  2. oooo lovely review – cant wait for this!! I havent read Daisy Johnson’s previous novel, but the cover and synopsis of this one instantly drew me in. ive been hearing so much buzz about it; im so glad you enjoyed it and ill definitely be getting to it as soon as I can get my hands on it 🙂

    1. It might not be up your alley but it is very well-written. She definitely captures that sibling relationship in a powerful way. Certainly not an ideal one but interesting to read about!

  3. Your review makes me want to go to my TBR bin and pull out Ice Twins, the book about the twin that dies and the other twin says that she’s actually the twin they thought died. Are the narrators in this book quite different? I would quickly forget which kids was which based on their names alone unless they have distinct voices. Or what if they’re supposed to be really similar, like the “twins” from The Shining?

    1. I don’t want to give anything away so all I’ll say is that the voices are distinct. The twins are very different in personality but very, very connected to one another.

      Ice Twins sounds like it has both a similar but also drastically different plot.

  4. Ooh, great review, I’m so excited for Sisters! I’m really glad that the slow reveal of the bullying doesn’t read like withholding for the sake of plot (a pet peeve of mine) and also that it leaves room for the reader to decide the final outcome (a tactic I love). The story line and themes already sounded great to me, so it was the execution I was curious about… and it sounds like it comes across well! I’m so glad you enjoyed this one!

    1. It’s really good – my gut says you’ll like it! I hate when authors withhold information for the sake of a big reveal too but Johnson handles it well so it never feels like the narrators are keeping things from us.

  5. Ohhh I love the sounds of this one! Sounds like a great thriller, although I do generally grumble at the use of ‘and then that fateful day’ plotting, I’m happy to hear the author doesn’t torture you with it 🙂

    1. It’s good! I think it benefits from the fact that some of the characters are not entirely clear about what happened That Fateful Day so we begin to figure it out as they come to understand it too.

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