I knew there was a reason that Shirley Jackson Reading Week included the 18th – because I have only just got around to finishing my choice (thanks to two book group books read earlier in the week): I read the only Shirley Jackson novel I hadn’t previously got around to, which is also her first novel, The Road Through The Wall (1948). It’s fitting that this was a gift from lovely Lisa/Bluestalking Reader – well, bought with an Amazon gift certificate she was sweet enough to send me after I finished my DPhil – as Lisa was the one who first introduced me to Shirley Jackson, back in about 2006, with We Have Always Lived in the Castle.
I approached The Road Through The Wall with some trepidation. How would a first novel, written even before ‘The Lottery’ was published and Jackson became a sensation, stack up against her later triumphs? I already knew that her second and third novels, though great, weren’t quite as wonderful as her final books. And yet, though The Road Through The Wall isn’t her best work, it is a fascinating look at how her style and modus operandi hit the road running. Indeed, it is pretty much a companion piece to ‘The Lottery’, in its depiction of small town America.
The novel focuses on the small community of Pepper Street, which is almost entirely made up of families with young children. Those are certainly the family units that interact the most, leaving maiden aunts and single men rather alienated. But alienation seems to be a key factor of almost all the other interactions on the street too, whether that be Tod Donald, ignored by his family and the other residents on the street, or the mothers and daughters of Pepper Street, in the wake of the novel’s first event: the girls have all been writing romantic letters to boys. This is unearthed when Harriet returns home to find her mother has looked through her desk.
Harriet went upstairs away from her mother’s sorry voice. Her desk was unlocked; instead of eating dinner, she and her mother had stood religiously by the furnace and put Harriet’s diaries and letters and notebooks into the fire one by one, while solid Harry Merriam sat eating lamb chops and boiled potatoes upstairs alone. “I don’t know what its all about,” he said to Harriet and his wife when they came upstairs. “Seems like a man ought to be able to come home after working all day and not hear people crying all the time. seems like a man has a right to have a quiet home.”
Alone in her room again Harriet sat down by the window. Outside,in the eucalyptus trees in the first rich darkness were quiet and infinitely delicate, a rare leaf moving softly against the others. Harriet was accustomed to thinking of them as lace against the night sky; on windy nights they were crazy, pulling like wild things against the earth. Tonight, in their patterned peacefulness, Harriet rested her head somehow against them and stopped thinking about her mother. Lovely, lovely things, she thought, and tried to imagine herself sinking into them far beyond the surface, so far away that nothing could ever bring her back.
That passage should show you Jackson’s skilful depiction of both family life and descriptive passages. And those are the two main strengths of The Road Through The Wall which, paragraph by paragraph, is extremely good. Jackson understands (and, what is more, can portray) feelings of anxiety, fear, loneliness, competition, isolation, and so on and so on. Nothing in this novel is glib or unconsidered, and the way she writes about both the claustrophobia and camaraderie of small town life is on par with anything she achieved later.
So, I can’t fault the writing or the tone. What didn’t work as well in this novel I think, is structure. Very little happens in The Road Through The Wall, which is fine, but novels which are just about daily life need to have perhaps even firmer a grasp on structure and balance than those that are plot-dominated. This one meandered a bit, and though there was definitely a sinister edge throughout which justified the sudden rush towards a dark denouement (to avoid spoilers, don’t read Penguin’s blurb), I don’t think she had complete control over the pacing of the novel. For instance, the road of the title makes a very late appearance, and I could never entirely work out why it was so significant. And there are also too many characters, not all of whom ever quite become distinct.
Not up there with her finest work, then, but an astonishing first novel, and demonstrates what a talented prose writer Jackson was from the outset.