Riverhead Books | August 25, 2020
Daisy Johnson’s shifty new novel, Sisters, deploys reality-warping descriptions and identity-dissolving declarations to the world of adolescence, a time of eerie and traumatic change. For Johnson’s teenagers, a body is a house and a house is a body. Sleep can be heavy and “without corners.” Teeth feel “furry” from cheese-and-onion sandwiches eaten on a long journey. A man is a “howlingbanderlootinggrifter.” A nervous girl is “peaky and pale, gray around the edges like fruit on the turn.” Bullies are “juddering-witches and ranksalivafaces.” Sisters are each other’s shadows, and shadows have a life of their own.
In Sisters identity is fluid and individuals remain elusive—like in Johnson’s previous books. In her lithesome short story collection Fen and her pulsing novel Everything Under, Johnson created unpredictable narratives that explored and transformed common women-centered tropes, including one story in which an apparent eating disorder ends with a girl transforming into a fish. With Sisters, Johnson brings her twisty, shiny adjectives and alchemical sentences to the story of two sisters growing apart. The girls, July and September, are as close to one another as they are different in appearance and personality. July has the dark complexion of their mother, Sheela, while September is like their absent father, “smooth-haired, cheeks soft with blond fuzz, pale-eyed like a snow animal.” Born only ten months apart, the girls do almost everything together, and their differences turn them into complementary parts of a two-piece set. The complementary nature of the girls is reflected in the book’s structure as well: July is the primary narrator, with Sheela filling in gaps from the past, and it’s only through July’s adulating and incomplete perspective that one gains any access to September.
The story occurs after the girls and their mother move to a rundown family beach house, The Settle House, because of a mysterious event at their old school, the truth of which is revealed at the book’s devastating climax. The Settle House adds to the book’s Gothic feeling; it’s a physical place, built of wood and plaster, but also a container for memories, thoughts, and feelings. The house and its strangeness remind July that things have changed, probably permanently, and the isolated setting mirrors July’s sense of isolation from her sister.
Even in the aftermath of the mysterious event and girl’s relocation to the strange house, Johnson never loses sight of the normality of her character’s adolescence: girls from their school, the “ranksalivafaces,” bully July and September steps in. July has a crush on a boy and exchanges anxious texts. July fears that her connection to September is fraying, that September is becoming whole without her. The sisters play childish games, including one they call “September Says.”
The game “September Says” serves as a relic of an earlier, more connected time for the girls, when they first visited the Settle House and communicated in a specific language of their own. July says of the game, “September was in charge and I was the puppet and had to do whatever she said. If she said September says stand on your head or September says write your name on the wall in permanent marker then I had to do it. If she said stand on your head or write your name on the wall in permanent marker then I wasn’t allowed to do it.” Through the game, the girls create a real and fake language: when prefaced by “September Says,” September’s orders produce an effect; when not prefaced, her words remain immaterial. The game also brings the girls closer, since it requires they collaborate instead of compete. They become a unit, with July’s submissive role dependent on September’s dominance, and vice versa.
July’s devotion to September arises from her wish to be like her self-assured and bold sister. To their mother Sheela, September is fierce and July is “ever the peacekeeper”; September has a sharpness, July, an “anxious mania.” Sheela writes fictional versions of her daughters in her published children’s books, which influence the girls, blurring their boundaries between fiction and reality. July describes the books as if the events in them are from her own life: “When we were ten I was kidnapped by a minotaur and September rescued me from the maze. When I was twelve I fell into a water tank and September had to work out how to get me out before the water rose to the top. When I was fourteen I read the wrong instructions in an ancient book and September had to stop the end of the world from happening.” Her description, though fantastical, recalls the questions anyone might have about tenuous childhood memories: Am I remembering what happened or just what I was told? Does it count for anything, even if it never occurred?
This inability to distinguish between reality and fiction extends to July’s waking and sleeping moments, as well. She has trouble sleeping as “the seam between waking and sleeping grew thin” and fears if she went to sleep, “September would leave . . . September would die from electrocution or drowning or fire or being buried alive.” From context, we infer that these are her nightmares, and it’s the Dream September who would die, but July’s sentences work like their mother’s children’s books, blurring the distinction between Dream September and the real one.
Johnson’s eschewment of simile for metaphor—the Dream September is not like the real September, she actually is September—dissolves the borders between dreams and reality, presenting a radical portrait of identity. Rather than a constructed and fixed self, one that is as distinct as it is static, Johnson presents identity as fluid, multivalent, and porous: a person never stays themselves for long. At any given point a person can have many characteristics, some of which are even opposed to one another, and, most radical of all, one person can merge with another, becoming one with a single joyous collision and separate just as easily with a painful tearing apart. It’s fitting that Johnson embeds such a statement within a novel about the time in life when one begins to mark oneself off as different and more than what one’s family has prescribed.
On one level, Sisters is about July attempting to reconcile the real September and the many fictional ones, including the ones from her dreams, their past, and their mother’s books. Lesser writers would resolve this question with some pat explanation of how to delineate between the essential and trivial. Instead of anything didactic, Johnson and her blurring, expansive language merge the figurative and the literal, leaving us with a series of searing impressions of the girls and their connection, all of them vivid, distinct, and fleeting.