Monday, 7 December 2015

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Book Cover of We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
I added this to my wishlist right after finishing The Haunting of Hill House earlier this year. I'd link you to a review, but like almost every other book I've read this year, I didn't write one. I chose to learn Russian instead. Yes, I am also a little confused as to why. Anyway, I knew I wanted to read every book she had ever written, and We Have Always Lived in the Castle is the author's most famous work. I now completely understand why and I'm in total agreement. It's amazing and I want to lick it.

Plot summary: Living in the Blackwood family home with only her sister Constance and her Uncle Julian for company, Merricat just wants to preserve their delicate way of life. But ever since Constance was acquitted of murdering the rest of the family, the world isn't leaving the Blackwoods alone. And when Cousin Charles arrives, armed with overtures of friendship and a desperate need to get into the safe, Merricat must do everything in her power to protect the remaining family. 

I was absolutely hooked by the end of the first page. It's narrated by Merricat, or Mary Katherine Blackwood, in a very formal yet oddly chatty tone. She lives with her sister, who was formerly on trial for poisoning the rest of their family, and their Uncle Julian, who somehow managed to survive the whole thing. It's one of those books where the truth is finally unearthed with little hints here and there, dotted in and amongst the narrative of their daily lives.

The trial and the murder aren't the focus of We Have Always Lived in the Castle though, not really. It's more of a background feature to explain why the two women live alone and why the village dislikes their presence to such a vehement extent. The subtlety of it makes it all the more fascinating. The main plot revolves around their Cousin Charles, who suddenly rolls up one day and begins what Merricat refers to as The Change.

As with most of Shirley Jackson's books (from the two I've read and what I've heard of the others), there's a very Gothic, mysterious atmosphere that seems to creep from the very pages. Merricat likes to hide little treasures in the ground of their property, as apparently this will create some kind of ward to protect her and Constance from the outside world. She never quite comes out and says that she believes she has magical powers, but the implication is very much there. 

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 my family is dead.
There's also a mental illness theme that runs through this book. It seems to be a trademark of Shirley Jackson's to keep the reader on their toes - half the time you're not sure whether the characters have psychological issues or there really is something worrying going on. Aside from Uncle Julian's obvious difficulties, both Constance and Merricat have been affected by the trial and the death of their family, and it shows in their actions. Both are agoraphobic, although to different extents, and both are stuck in the mindset they carried during That Time six years previously. It's very cleverly written. 

I don't feel like this review is really doing any justice at all to the book. It's hard to capture the subtlety and the atmosphere of this book, that is just written so beautifully. Even the ending is perfect, in a lot of different ways. I haven't been able to stop thinking about it since I turned the last page and I would be very surprised if this book didn't make my Top Ten Books of 2015 list. 


Read Laura's review of The Haunting of Hill House at Devouring Texts.

10 comments:

  1. Oh wow, I just started reading this today! Like you, I read The Haunting of Hill House a little while ago and really needed to read more. I don't know what it is with her and creepy houses but I'm so weirdly taken in with it :P

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    Replies
    1. Haha, what a coincidence :)

      I know, me too. She just builds atmosphere so well, doesn't she?

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  2. Sounds interesting - I'll have to give it a shot!

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  3. I've been wanting to read this one. I think that's the thing with her writing, like you said, it's all about building the right atmosphere for the reader!

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    Replies
    1. I really do recommend it. I've never read any author who can build atmosphere as well as Shirley Jackson.

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  4. I really want to read THoHH! I keep having to look at the library, if and when I go (because who needs renewal deadlines over Christmas?!), because Waterstones and Shirley Jackson do not seem to be frequently found TOGETHER. I'll read it eventually. YAY SHIRLEY!

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  5. I read the first part of this book and then forgot to renew my library book so I had to return it before I finished it. Isn't that the saddest excuse ever?! :( Especially since "Gothic truth-unearthing" is my favorite plot ever! Shirley Jackson is fantastic at building atmosphere and is probably the mother of "slow burn" pacing.

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