Friday, 30 November 2012

Review: We Have Always Lived in the Castle

We Have Always Lived in the Castle
Shirley Jackson

This is going to be one of those novels that stays with me for some time. Even as I was reading it spread out over a few sittings I could not stop thinking about it and trying to work out what it was that made me feel so uncomfortable. The novel tells the story of Constance and Merricat Blackwood, two sisters whose entire family (except their Uncle Julian) had been poisoned. Constance, the eldest, was acquitted for their murder but the scandal has completely cut them off from the village.

If anything, the novel is about routine, the delicacy of routine and the difficulty of maintaining routine in the face of significant change. It is aspects of this routine that make the novel so uncanny. Everyday activities, such as cooking, become something more. The relationship between the sisters, Constance the elder and Merricat the younger, resembles a basic sister relationship. Even the rules they live by, for example Merricat is not allowed to prepare food or handle knives, point to not much more than an over-protective sibling relationship. But there is always something there, more or less unsaid throughout, that unsettled me as I read it.

Merricat's narration is perhaps my favourite element of the novel. She twists everything whilst still consistently reporting on events and unabashedly explaining her feelings (she imagines walking on the bodies of the villagers).  She tends to repeat certain phrases and ideas. For example, she frequently comments 'I was chilled', usually as a response to her sister's actions. Although this is a relatively harmless phrase, I must admit I found this one of the most unsettling, mostly because it is so frequently repeated. Retrospectively (without giving any spoilers), the fact that Merricat was 'chilled' is even more chilling! I cannot see how anyone would not be caught under the spell of Merricat from the very first lines:

'My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all, I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in our family is dead.'

Chilling, right?

Ultimately it is a twisted fairy tale with an equally twisted 'happy' ending as, after a violent climax which demonstrates to Constance the dangers of the outside world, Merricat gets exactly what she wants, that is, to live 'on the moon' with her sister.

In this Modern Classics edition there is a brilliant afterward by Joyce Carol Oates with some interesting facts about Jackson. It is certainly worth a read if you have this edition.

In a nutshell, this book is brilliant and I think would appeal to any reader, so, go read it. Meanwhile, off I trot to the bookshop to buy up all of Jackson's work. Any particular recommendations?


1 comment

  1. Ohmigoodness, I absolutely loved this novel. The writing is just brilliant, and whole story just keeps you stuck to the pages - even now, months later, I'm still thinking about it, and talking to whoever I can about it. It's an amazing, amazing read with lots to think about it.

    Btw, I know this post is from quite awhile ago but if you're still looking for some more Shirley Jackson "The Haunting" is a really good book as well =]


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