‘Sisters’ Takes Sibling Closeness Too Far

Sibling relationships are such a tossup; they can be close and warm, they can be more or less indifferent, and they can be sharp and cruel. Some siblings manage to be all three at the same time. Sisters seem to magnify the intricacies of such relationships—and the heights and the depths possible within them. So it is with Daisy Johnson’s Sisters, a slim novel that will make you feel on edge while you’re reading it, and also after you put it down.

But first, a little light-hearted sisterly closeness. It will help with what’s to come.

We know from the start that something very bad has happened in Sisters, though July—the younger of the titular two sisters—narrates in such a way that we’re not quite sure what. And maybe she’s not sure, either—memories seem patchy, she tells us, and besides, she’s got more pressing things to worry about. There’s the move from their old home in Oxford to a decrepit house on a spit of English coastline, for one, and the increasingly erratic words and actions of September, July’s sister older by just ten months.

July knows she’s nothing without her more confident sister beside her, but even through her starry-eyed account of their first few days on the coast, it’s clear that not all of September deserves adoration. September is confident, but she can also be domineering, not to mention cruel, knowing exactly where July’s comfort zone is and shoving her out in ways that make July feel sliced open. July also knows that, as they near adulthood, they’re also growing apart, but isn’t sure September will let them go their own way.

Meanwhile, what July remembers of the past paints a dark foe worth running away as fast and far as possible. Always viciously bullied, July is tricked into sending explicit pictures of herself to who she thinks is her crush, only to find out the request was the latest jab by her bullies. The picture is plastered all over school. September rushes to July’s defense by getting into a fight with one of the bullies, leading to both September and the bully being suspended. Unfortunately for July and the girls’ mother, Sheela, this only makes September thirstier for justice. It all culminates on a muddy tennis court during a torrential rainstorm, and the result is bad enough to make the little family pack up and leave. But the road between the new house and July’s memories of what actually happened that night is winding and full of metaphorical potholes. One thing is clear, though: Not all is right with this pair of sisters.

It would almost be more comforting if they were enmeshed physically like this, yes.

As a narrator, July seems so trusting and untrustworthy that the reading experience immediately teeters, and both truth and lie feel like unreliable places to land. And from her telling, she comes across as the nicer one, the more normal one, the one from whom you wouldn’t fear for your safety after the slightest disagreement. But there’s also a real sense of unsteadiness with her. She is nothing without September, and that phrase cuts in more than one way. She knows she doesn’t always want what September thinks is best for them, but she also doesn’t trust herself to do anything but what September wants. She’ll do anything for September’s approval—anything. At one point, she realizes she does not even know how to talk to their mother “without September between [them] like a bridge and a wall all at the same time.” Such co-dependence makes it hard to get as close to July as her voice bids you to be.

Sisters is a book about co-dependence—September doesn’t get her own voice, but it seems clear she relies on July just as much as July relies on her, but in a different way. It’s about the way relationships can contort themselves around distorted power dynamics and a lack of air. And it’s also a story about grief in different forms, and the anger or delusion such grief can curdle into. Grief is the truth; grief is a deceiver. Closeness can be a strength and a crutch, and we see both in the sisters. Even as the book comes to a close, this study in polarity continues—what could happen if our characters chose one path, or stubbornly stayed on the one they’re on. From the outside, the choices seem easy, but from the outside, it’s also clear to see how unhealthy the relationship between sisters really is. What’s on the inside, Daisy Johnson tells us, is a world all unto itself.

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