TITLE: We Have Always Lived in the Castle
AUTHOR: Shirley Jackson
214 pages, Penguin Books, ISBN 9780140071078 (paperback)
DESCRIPTION: (from the back cover) All is peaceful at the Blackwood Estate – until a murderer strikes. 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 murder, 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.
MY RATING: 4 out of 5 stars
MY THOUGHTS: Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” has always been one of my favorite short stories (up there with Susan Glaspell’s “A Jury of Her Peers”), and her novel The Haunting of Hill House is wonderful, so you would think with all the American Literature classes I’ve taken and reading I’ve done on my own that I would have long-since read more of Jackson’s work. And yet, I’ve only just read We Have Always Lived in the Castle for the first time. I suspect it will be joining the list of books I reread more often than not.
I came into Castle with no more awareness of what it was about than the back cover described plus the book’s reputation as a classic. It’s great to be able to approach a book that’s been analyzed for decades with fresh eyes and no real preconceptions. I’m not sure how any of what I’m about to say maps onto published literary criticism of the work. Maybe I’ll go looking at reviews after I post this. Or maybe I’ll continue in my own world, as the book’s main character does. That would perhaps be appropriate.
The first thing that struck me, slowly over the opening chapters, is the development of Merricat’s voice, the slow revelation that she is both divorced from every-day reality and hyper-aware of it. I tend to really enjoy unreliable narrators, but it’s not obvious at the outset just how unreliable Merricat will be. Early indications are that she lives in a bit of a dream-world and has some coping mechanisms that help her get through situations that give her social anxiety, but that she’s otherwise a normal teenager stuck in an abnormal living situation as one of only three survivors of a family tragedy; how all-pervasive her dream-world is, how little of what she says is just creative turns-of-phrase by a lonely, awkward teenager, only becomes apparent as the novel progresses. The change in how Merricat expresses herself – the increasingly dream-like quality of her language – is brilliantly crafted and paced.
Chapter One’s description of the town and the Blackwood family’s disconnect from it feel naturalistic. We get glimpses of the locals, and meet a few through whom we start to see how socially awkward Merricat is. We get a sense of the layout of the town in relation to the Blackwood estate, and the first hints that there’s more darkness in this family’s history than just the recent murders. Even that nastiest interaction with locals in chapter one, and there are several, feels light in comparison to what comes later. This could be the lead-off scene of any novel about small-town life in these United States.
But from the very first pages of chapter two, the book veers from slice-of-life to American Gothic and never swings back. We learn, in little bits of detail strung in among Merricat’s less-lucid moments, the Blackwood history: willingly removed from town life, from their richer friends and even from direct family, they’d become a small, insular group of seven, replete with power struggles and mis-communications that festered. Most of this is revealed through the ramblings of Uncle Julian, the regrets of Constance, and the neediness of cousin Charles, as filtered through Merricat’s unique world-view. Insular family cut off from local social life; a dark old estate; family history skeletons hinted at but never fully revealed; the intimation of romantic flirtation between first cousins Constance and Charles … if these aren’t the tropes of a Gothic suspense novel, nothing is.
Perhaps it’s because of her skewed world-view that Merricat is the only one to see the danger that both the villagers and cousin Charles pose. And it’s not that she’s wrong about the danger – she is clearly correct in worrying that Charles’ arrival portends a drastic change in her daily life. But I also can’t say that Charles, as self-serving as he is, is completely wrong when he points out how Constance’s social anxiety after her acquittal have removed Julian and Merricat from the medical/psychiatric help they both so obviously need. But Charles’ selfishness and greed supersede any good he may have accomplished.
The book is also current in a way Jackson could not possibly have predicted. Gossip, the “social media” of the era, creates an expectation of the surviving Blackwoods that is at the very least inaccurate and more dangerous: the angrier the townspeople get about how distant and disturbing the Blackwoods have always been, the more desperate they get to know what really goes on in the Blackwood house, the less civilized they act. Polite veneer falls away even before the tragic arc of the book hits its peak, and a finer description of mindless mob mentality I have never read. I had to put the book down for a while after reading that brutal, raw scene.
If the book starts with a very concrete, naturalistic feel, it ends with a tone that is ephemeral and fantastic. How much time actually passes in the final chapter is a question I’m not sure Jackson herself wanted to answer. To Merricat, it seems like only weeks, but there are hints (the house in now vine-covered; the legend of “the ladies” grows more morbid) that years, if not a decade or more, have passed. Which I think is a brilliant way to end a book so deeply mired in the dream-world Merricat lives in.
The truth behind the murders is almost the least important plot point to be resolved, even though it’s the point the townsfolk are most stridently obsessed with. It’s obvious to the reader, I think, long before the characters actually discuss it – the hints are certainly all there. When it is revealed, it’s done so subtly that I almost didn’t realize what was being said.
Obviously, I highly recommend We Have Always Lived in the Castle to any fans of Gothic suspense. It really is a fast read at a little over two hundred pages, but gives you a lot to absorb and think about. This is also the first book I’ve read this year towards my 2019 To Be Read Challenge.