Skip to main content




Daisy Johnson’s new novel, SISTERS, is a rich, strange and darkly sensuous tale of autonomy and sorority.

The titular siblings are September and July. Although they are not twins, they are just 10 months apart in age and seemingly inseparable. September, the elder, is impetuous and manipulative, while July is passive and insecure. When we meet them, they are on the road with their mother, Sheela. They are leaving behind their home in Oxford --- and a recent terrible event --- and moving into the Settle House, a rental owned by their paternal aunt. That awful incident is only slowly and carefully revealed as Johnson draws readers into the pathology that the sisters share. In the Settle House, the girls spend hallucinatory days scrounging for food, harassing utility workers, and skirting around the truth about why they had to leave Oxford. The novel mostly employs July’s voice and perspective, with infusions of September’s, and Sheela chimes in only briefly.

SISTERS is a slim book, yet it is emotionally weighty, full of evocative images, anguish, sorrow, and an intense feeling of foreboding and retrospective misery. Johnson handles all of this well with her beautiful language, perfectly paced revelations and affecting insights.

"This is a great novel that is well-conceived and fantastically executed. It is haunting and weird, with mysterious and frightening elements couched in a coming-of-age tale."

For Sheela, coming back to the Settle House means returning to memories of the girls’ father. Peter was cruel and cold, and his death many years before left matters emotionally unresolved. She sees much of Peter in September and has long worried about her control over July. As their mother sinks into depression, the sisters try to make the Settle House their home and begin to explore the seaside community. They meet John, a friendly local teenage boy, and decide to accept his invitation to a beach party, making another definitive break from their lives of isolation and experiences of bullying in Oxford. But their physical relationship with John serves to further erode the distinction between the girls and calls into question both the odd occurrences in the Settle House and the trauma they experienced in Oxford.

What really happened at the tennis courts on that stormy night that July wants to forget? How has she been impacted by a lifetime lived with September, whose games and love have always been threaded with danger, threat and harm? What first appears as a closeness between the girls is gradually exposed as mistreatment and domination with horrific results and lasting detriment.

Motherhood and sisterhood struggle against victimhood and self-determination as September fights to maintain power, and as July and Sheela process what happened in Oxford, gathering the strength they need to reconcile past beliefs to reality and move forward.

SISTERS is a mad, waking nightmare, and Johnson expertly explores the line between affection and enmity, the fragility of familial bonds, and the possibility --- but not the promise --- of healing. She has a talent for capturing uncertainty and pain while allowing readers to admire her narrative loveliness. Here the use of the unreliable perspective of the narrator is well employed and unpretentious. This is a great novel that is well-conceived and fantastically executed. It is haunting and weird, with mysterious and frightening elements couched in a coming-of-age tale.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on August 28, 2020

by Daisy Johnson

  • Publication Date: August 24, 2021
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books
  • ISBN-10: 0593188969
  • ISBN-13: 9780593188965