Saturday, 26 November 2016

Review: 'We Have Always Lived in the Castle' by Shirley Jackson

WeHaveAlwaysLivedInTheCastle.JPGI only discovered Shirley Jackson a year or so ago, despite having read her famous short story 'The Lottery' years ago in high school. Quite how she remained undetected by my radar, finely attuned to awesome female writers of whatever century, but now that I've found her I have dedicated myself to reading all her work. First was a collection of her essays and short stories, Let Me Tell You, and next came We Have Always Lived in the Castle. God did I love this book!

Original Pub. Date: 1962
Publisher: Viking Press

Merricat Blackwood lives on the family estate with her sister Constance and her Uncle Julian. Not long ago there were seven Blackwoods—until a fatal dose of arsenic found its way into the sugar bowl one terrible night. Acquitted of the murders, Constance has returned home, where Merricat protects her from the curiosity and hostility of the villagers. Their days pass in happy isolation until cousin Charles appears. Only Merricat can see the danger, and she must act swiftly to keep Constance from his grasp.

Most of you will, like me, have read 'The Lottery' in high school as one of the finest examples of short story writing and will know how good Jackson is at building atmosphere. There is an incredible humanity in her writing, highlighting her ability to see people, not just what they do and pretend to do, but their motivations, dreams, fears and secrets. She can take something so innocent and reveal it to be potentially morbid and dangerous.This is what makes We Have Always Lived in the Castle an incredibly suspenseful read. Whether it's her characters or her settings, there is always something a little bit off, something that gives pause. In this novel it is the narrator, Merricat Blackwood, through whose calm yet tense first-person narration we come to know her, her older sister Constance, her crippled uncle Julian, their silent manor house and its sleepy neighbouring village. Her narration screams what it leaves unsaid, never lying outright yet seemingly never telling the whole truth. What does speak strongly from her narrative, however, is the feeling of being persecuted, evaded and spurned for being different. The shunning of the Blackwoods by the village, however, is contrasted by the deep love, affection and loyalty between the three remaining Blackwoods.

The introduction to my edition of We Have Always Lived in the Castle discussed how, 'typically for Jackson, sexuality is barely present in the book, and needless to say, sexuality is therefore everywhere in its absence'. The two key characters of the novel are both women, one closer to adolescence, the other more mature, yet their lives are what could be described as sexless. No notion of sex or romantic attraction rears its head in We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which adds to the women's strangeness. Yet Merricat and Constance are complete characters. The absence of sexuality does not make them unreal or empty, rather it makes them elusive. Their uncanniness means they cannot be pinned down or defined. They do not need the outside world to sustain them, they can happily exist in their own world with just each other's company. They are complete, and that is another aspect that makes them so different. The outside cannot reach or affect them, to the point that Merricat's narration almost creates a separate reality for her and Constance. As a reader, you are constantly torn between the idyll created by Merricat and what we assume reality must be. It makes for a compelling read.

Shirley Jackson's power lies in the simplicity of her writing. Whereas in her other famous novel, The Haunting of Hill House, Jackson employs all of her thriller tricks to their fullest and magnificent extent, We Have Always Lived in the Castle is deceptively calm. There are no ghosts, no well-timed thunderstorms or creaking doors. Rather there are just humans, and that is what makes this story almost more terrifying. The capacity of humans to exclude, lie, cheat, manipulate and deceive, that is what is truly horrifying and Jackson shows this not through cheap tricks but honesty. We Have Always Lived in the Castle will not let you go. When you put the book down, when you go about your day, you will still be wondering about Merricat and Constance, about what really happened, who can be trusted, and who definitely cannot. The novel is spell-binding, despite its brevity. Short stories as well as novellas depend upon being well-measured, to both give the reader enough but not too much. In 800+ pages it is easy to drive a point home, but when the words are limited every single one matters. And Jackson doesn't waste a single one. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is horror, psychological thriller, magical realism, Gothic and Mystical all mixed together and this masterful combination makes it a strong potion.

I give this novel...

5 Universes!

I absolutely loved We Have Always Lived in the Castle! It is a rollercoaster ride and yet also reads like a stroll in the park. You will race through this novel and yet be always one step behind Jackson and Merricat. And you'll love it. I recommend this novel to fans of mystery, horror and psychological thrillers.

5 comments:

  1. Lots of ups, downs, and round abouts, eh. This sounds great. And you're review is excellent!

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    1. Most definitely, but in the best possible way! And thank you so much, I haven't written reviews in ages so I was a bit nervous about writing them again xD Thank you for commenting :D
      Juli @ A Universe in Words

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  2. This book has been on my TBR list for so long. I’m glad you enjoyed it. I’ve read Shirley Jackson’s short stories, but I haven’t gotten to her novels yet.

    Aj @ Read All The Things!

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    1. GET TO IT!!!! It's so good and Jackson's writing is simply brilliant! Thank you for commenting :D
      Juli @ A Universe in Words

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  3. "Deceptively calm" - great description of this book! It was the first story by Jackson I read (somehow I still haven't read The Lottery...), and I adored it. I should probably give it a reread soon.

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