By Lucy Thynne
Daisy Johnson, Jonathan Cape, 2020
In her latest novel Sisters, Daisy Johnson writes: ‘My sister is a black hole. My sister is the end of the line, my sister is the locked door, my sister is a shot in a dark’. You would be forgiven for thinking that these lines constitute the beginning of a poem, or hail from the words to a song: such is their lyricism that it is easy to forget you are reading prose. This is trademark Johnson, whose writing continually dances one step ahead of the reader in Sisters, anticipating, teasing—and then deceiving. It is a novel she has described as her ‘third evil child’, a fitting label for a tale grounded both in youthful innocence and other-worldly horror.
Sisters tells the story of July and September, two sisters born ten months apart. The novel begins by inhabiting July’s voice, but the reader quickly gains an equal insight into the character of September, who is the older, domineering and self-confessed other half of July. Something terrible has happened back at their home in Oxford, but Johnson withholds much of this information when we first meet the sisters, revealing only that the event has prompted their mother Sheela to move them across the country to the North York moors. Their new home is something akin to the Gothic world of Wuthering Heights: there are noises in the walls and lights flickering of their own accord. Left alone to disentangle the events of the past, July is confronted with a series of impossible questions: how do you distinguish yourself as a person when you are also a sister? How do you narrate an event that is unspeakable, even to your own self?
These are the questions that Johnson is able to pose through a plotline that is as taut as it is restless, drip-feeding answers in a pacing characteristic of authors such as Stephen King and Shirley Jackson. When I speak to Johnson over a series of emails in May, she is quick to pay tribute to horror writers such as King— whose novels The Exorcist and The Omen she grew up reading—but also to literary fiction ‘infected by the strange’, listing authors Helen Oyeyemi, Sarah Hall and Bae Suah as particular inspirations. ‘Infected by the strange’ seems an apt description for her own novel which defies genre, troubling the boundary between what makes a Gothic tale, a work of horror or a story of family; Sisters is ‘infected’ by elements of the macabre, but not wholly defined by them. The story also speaks to her interest in the ‘everyday’ or the domestic, ‘overcome by what is frightening and uncanny’, taking the pacing of traditional horror fiction to write about smaller moments from ‘making tea’ to ‘eating sandwiches’.
Such moments may seem mundane until Johnson doubles back, adding a haunting quality to them—a hybrid style of horror writing that may once have been snubbed as “unliterary”, but which has won Johnson much critical acclaim. Her short story collection Fen saw rave reviews as an impressive debut, and her disquieting, mystical novel Everything Under won Johnson a spot on the 2018 Man Booker Prize shortlist, making her the youngest author to ever do so. “The strange”, it seems, is clearly enjoying a revival. This resurgence is also evident on our screens, where horror movies enjoy new critical acclaim: Jordan Peele’s Us grossed over $250 million at the box office, and Ari Aster’s Midsommar only narrowly missed out on Oscar nominations. Any snobbery for horror, Johnson proves, is ill-founded. She is constantly drawing on the confluence between popular horror tropes and literary fiction that one of her favourite authors, Helen Oyeyemi, already creates in White is for Witching , a sinister coming-of-age tale that similarly takes place in a haunted house. While her debt to Gothic fiction was the ‘first seed’ to the novel, Johnson says that the story grew to become more about the relationship between July and September but also, she believes, ‘the relationship we all have to the spaces around us’.
The spaces in this novel become some of its most compelling characters. When Johnson describes in our conversation her fascination for how a house can connect to the body, many of the settings seem to click into place: the house in Sisters is indeed a body, alive and decaying, a body of which July and September are simultaneously fascinated and repelled. ‘The Settle House is load-bearing’, July tells us, bearing ‘Mum’s endless sadness, September’s frightful wrath, my quiet failures to do quite what anyone needs me to do’. Located on the peripheries of the moors, the house, Johnson stresses, needed to be ‘somewhere wild, isolated, difficult to escape from especially if—as with September and July—you can’t drive’. The sisters’ previous home in Oxford, by contrast, is related in moments which delve effortlessly back in time, told with the quiet emotion and nostalgia of July. The result is a love letter to the two settings, both of which are intensely personal for Johnson. She recalls how, early on in writing the book, she was living in a campervan with her partner while teaching at the University of York, and when not teaching, she worked at its tiny table while the two drove around Yorkshire. It was a landscape that moved her, but she describes being equally ‘scared about the book and whether it was going to work’ and ‘anxious’ from living in such a confined space with another person. The Oxford sections of the novel are a refreshing complement, paying homage to her home address. Writing about Oxford was a strange process, ‘the way that writing about something directly in front of you is,’ she tells me, but is pleased that the city forms such an integral part of the novel. ‘The house in Oxford,’ Johnson writes in Sisters, is ‘where their happiness had been tenuous, but always there’.
Johnson not only flits between settings, but also between perspectives. Halfway through the novel we are confronted with a third-person narrative from the point of view of the sisters’ mother Sheela, a decision that is as bold as it is elucidating. These passages wrench the reader from their privileged position in the mind of July to an observation of Sheela that feels almost cinematic, full of close-ups. It is a non- judgmental snapshot of a failing mother, and although Johnson moves between perspectives with ease, it cannot have been without challenges. Johnson concedes, revealing that Sisters started life in the third person, but always felt inhabited by July’s voice: ‘there is a nervousness to writing in first person,’ because, she tells me, we tend to associate the writing both with the character and the writer. Nor is her decision to offer Sheela’s perspective condescending to the teenage July, who is no less a worthy narrator because of her age. The teenage perspective holds a particular interest for Johnson insomuch as it is such a strange time in life. ‘I wanted the language to show July’s uncertainty,’ she says, ‘a sort of constant unease, which is what I definitely felt when I was July’s age’.
Unease is one word for the novel’s tone, but it has come to sum up much of how Johnson views the act of writing itself: ‘awful, grief- filled, devastating’ are the trio of adjectives Johnson offers when I ask her about the process of writing Sisters, but it is a process she now accepts with admirable calm. Much of it centres on the deletion of at least the first four drafts, chipping away the final story with a sensation she compares to pure glee. ‘Saying this,’ she adds, ‘I am aware that tomorrow I will be weeping, and my partner will try to tell me that there are always days like this, and I will shout at him and then have to apologise.’ Her “Eureka” moment upon realising the ending of the book happened while walking along a street in London, where everything ‘got very hot and then very cold’. Moments such as these are limited in writing, she says, confessing that ‘mostly it feels like being a dog digging different holes, hoping they are in the right place’. It’s an unflattering description of a work bursting with the same urgency as Everything Under, but it speaks volumes about Johnson’s humility as a writer, and her candour in ‘hoping’ to strike the same precision achieved in her previous works. I ask her how much she considers Sisters to be a follow-up to Everything Under and Fen, and she says that she tends to think of her writing as existing in the same universe. Her characters are people who may occasionally ‘walk past one another in the street,’ or ‘sit across the aisle from one another on the bus’. The analogy makes particular sense given the strong overlap in feeling between Sisters and her other work: there is the same technique of a final twist like that of Everything Under, as well as themes of landscape and uncertainty that Johnson acknowledges first took hold in Fen.
One such theme is female relationships, explored through the dynamic between July, September and their mother Sheela. Everything Under is the obvious antecedent to this, where mother-daughter relationships are examined with similar scrutiny (‘mothers and daughters rise up again and again in my writing,’ Johnson notes). The true mastery of the novel, however, lies in the relationship between the sisters of the title. July tells us unnervingly of how she and September have become interchangeable, verging on being almost telekinetic. She reaches for September’s arm in the car at the beginning of the story, wondering ‘if I can tell, by the contact, what she is thinking. Sometimes I can’. Readers will be simultaneously reminded of the twins in The Shining, and the sisters Ruth and Lucille in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping; these characters feel familiar, but at once new. As the novel progresses, we are invited more and more into a world in which July is bullied by her sister at home and by her classmates at school. The otherness she feels is movingly described and, at times, difficult to read— travelling with her from Oxford to the isolation of their new house on the moors. Johnson’s ability to tread the line between the stereotype of female ‘cattiness’, hatred and love is one that is testament to her skill as a writer: July tells us that these things can, of course, all exist at once.
I ask Johnson about why she chose to focus exclusively on female relationships, and she suggests it stems from an obsession with writing about family. They are relationships that we do not get to choose, she reminds us in Sisters, but are very much formative to the person we become, revealing her particular interest in ‘how strong these relationships can be, how all-consuming’. With the crux of the question being on ‘female’, her answer is honest. She has begun to feel ‘exhausted’ with questions of gender, the limitations it poses and often does not solve. Take the language we use around gender, for example: ‘it is embarrassing to admit as a writer, but I never feel that the right word is there,’ she says. ‘I think that July, the protagonist of Sisters, would maybe feel the same if asked.’
When I first finished reading Sisters, and by the time I talked to Johnson, the effects of
the coronavirus pandemic were already visibly rippling across the outside world, but also the literary one: Sisters was one of the many book titles whose publication had been delayed. This particular overlap with the pandemic was practical, but the overlap with themes of isolation in the book is what felt especially timely. At one moment in the book, July describes her mother returning from a shopping trip with ‘tins of fruit and beans, long-life milk’, items ‘September would call apocalypse fare’. I had to put the book down for a moment and pause—the scene was so strikingly similar to our own. Johnson herself is ‘certain’ that the conversation around the book will now be different than it would have been. ‘Often’, she says, ‘the things my characters are grappling with are—as well as big issues—small problems of what to eat, how to get out of bed, what to watch on the television,’ actions which all become charged with a new meaning in life under lockdown. Every book ages quickly, and Johnson is all too aware that this ageing applies to Sisters, which will be touched by the world in a way she ‘never could have anticipated’. ‘I try and hand a book over when it is finished,’ she says, emphasising that she cannot predict how the book’s reception will be affected. She is intrigued to see how readers will answer this question themselves and says the book—her labour of love for many months—‘is no longer mine’. It now belongs, by default, to you.
LUCY THYNNE reads English at Somerville College. Aged three, she had to be taken to hospital because she was subsisting only on cheese puffs, a diet she proudly continues to this day.
Art by Isabella Lill