July and September are the teenage sisters of this eerie, absorbing novel; they are as near to twins as two girls born 10 months apart can be. As we enter their story they are heading north – or so it appears – with their mother Sheela, driving from Oxford to Yorkshire, to a broken down house “beached up on the side of the North York Moors, only just out of the sea”. This is the liminal, watery territory that Daisy Johnson has already laid claim to in her debut collection of stories, Fen, published in 2016; in the 2018 Booker-shortlisted Everything Under, she also concocted an unsettling blend of the mythical and the real, drawing on the tale of Oedipus to enact the magnetic torment of the mother-daughter bond.
The trio are fleeing some at first unspecified disaster or distress. Sheela has pulled the girls out of school and is able to find shelter thanks to the largesse of her sister-in-law Ursa, who maintains a connection with Sheela and the girls in part, it seems, out of guilt over her brother’s behaviour. Peter, the girls’ father, died when they were tiny, and abandoned the family before that: he was violent, unstable, “like a ship on fire in the night, sails alight and taking all the other boats with it”. The experience of reading Sisters is a kind of dance of the seven veils as the family’s past, and the tragedy that is the book’s true narrative engine, are revealed in fragmentary, frightening glimpses.
The name of the house at the edge of the moors is “Settle House”: a good Yorkshire name, of course, but it is a deeply unsettling place. The narrative voice shifts between July’s first person and a third-person voice from Sheela’s perspective; a brief interlude gives the history of the house from before it was built, as if it is a place of fate: “At the start there was only earth where the house would be.” Peter was born there, as was September; the pull of the book comes from our desire to discover what has really brought this little family back to Yorkshire, and from our inability to look away from damaged and damaging relationships.
Johnson is adept at giving the sisters’ mythic closeness a 21st-century twist: September insists that they celebrate both their birthdays on the day of her own birth, but it’s more shocking to learn that they share a single phone, a truly disquieting intimacy. At school the pair are “isolated, uninterested, conjoined, young for their age, sometimes moved to great cruelty”. When September loses her virginity on a Yorkshire beach, it seems as if July shares the sensation, lying back on the sand, feeling “a tightening and then in my crotch a pressure, sudden, startling”. This is a moment that the reader will consider again later in the novel, when the mystery of the sisters’ entanglement and their mother’s depression is gradually – and disturbingly – revealed.
There are echoes of Johnson’s influences throughout. September controls July, though we never hear from her directly; the reader recalls Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. The twisting of the plot nods, perhaps, to Sarah Waters; and Johnson has said that the work of Stephen King has been important to her (though it is a step too far when the girls dress as the twins in The Shining for Halloween). The book is shot through with horror, keeping the tension at a fever pitch even in moments of quiet. In one truly striking sequence, September insists they paint the sitting room of Settle House using pots of random paint: the colours are not “quite right” so they mix them together in a saucepan, “aiming for purple and almost getting there”.
Why aren’t the colours quite right? What is concealed by that “almost”? This kind of elision, an unwillingness to fix on exactly what the problem is, is one of her strengths as a writer, for the unspoken and undescribed can be just as alarming as what is revealed. A few pages later Johnson shows her hand, the wall crumbling to reveal an ants’ nest. They pour out, getting stuck in the paint, “the hole widening against their small, tough forms”. A bird appears then; the ants swarm over it; July shouts, collapses, wakes to September crouched on top of her, her fingers gouging July’s chest. “Any words I was about to say are sucked from me and into her.” It’s a tour-de-force of attraction and repulsion, of intimate disgust.
In Sisters, folktale terror shunts up against the contemporary and eternal terror of domestic and sexual abuse. Settle House has a wood-burning stove, a low beamed ceiling that could be almost cosy; similarly, Johnson’s prose seduces us with the promise of comfort and then yanks that comfort away.
• Sisters by Daisy Johnson is published by Jonathan Cape (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.