28. We Have Always Lived in the Castle – Shirley Jackson
Well done to those who correctly guessed We Have Always Lived in the Castle from the image I shared the other day – and well done to those with the foresight to have bought the book already. As well as being my favourite ever book title (doesn’t it make you want to read the book, without reading a word more about it?) this is a quite brilliant novel. Initially published in 1962, this great image is from the new Penguin reprint in the UK. I first read the novel in 2006, I think, and re-read it yesterday, just to make sure it was still great… a second read removed some of the suspense, of course, because the questions were no longer unanswered – but it actually brought a new dimension to the tale, too, as I shall explain…
I’m going to do my best to write about this book sans-spoilers, since it has so many wonderful twists and turns. I’m going to give away much less than most reviews do, so if you want to try We Have Always Lived in the Castle from the same starting point I did, perhaps don’t follow the links at the bottom…
The opening paragraph gives a few important bits of information:
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.
The first chapter shows Mary Katherine – also known as Merricat – walking through the local town, seeing the trip like a board game; she ‘misses turns’ if she crosses the street, for example. ‘The people of the village have always hated us.’ What a stunning first chapter Shirley Jackson has written – without knowing why the Blackwood family are pariahs, we feel such tension, such awkwardness and fear as Merricat makes her way through the village. And she is the victim of childish chants:
Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?
Oh no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.
Merricat, said Connie, would you like to go to sleep?
Down in the boneyard ten feet deep!
Once home, she is not in a world of normality. Merricat believes she can protect her family and her house through nailing books to trees, burying marbles on the land, and storing away words – melody, Gloucester, Pegasus – which, so long as they aren’t spoken aloud, will prevent danger. Because the novel is from Merricat’s first person perspective, these superstitions are spoken without any defensiveness or recognition of a lack of logic. Which transports the reader into a surreal, unsettling viewpoint… Constance is more normal, though agoraphobic, unable to move beyond the perimetres of Blackwood land. Uncle Julian, the other remaining Blackwood, is obsessively creating a history of what happened to the family, especially the night they died. He is also mentally disintegrating, every bit as unsettling as Merricat’s bizarre internal logic. Oh, and then there’s the rather wonderful cat, Jonas, the only truly sane member of the family.
Though a short novel, Jackson packs a huge amount in. Not only the readers’ curiosity to discover what happened to the rest of the Blackwood family, but also a consuming tension in the atmosphere of the novel. This was Jackson’s last novel, and (of the three I’ve read) the best – suffering from agoraphobia herself whilst writing it, she perfectly creates the joint security and terror of the home. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is Gothic from the title onwards, but Jackson also writes a fascinating psychological study – this slim book has everything, and on re-reading is all the more impressive, for the clues and presentiments scattered throughout. The pace quickens, the events escalate, but the tone never eases and Merricat’s unique angle on the world never lessens.
When I first read We Have Always Lived in the Castle, I hadn’t heard of either the book or the author – it was in a postal book group, sent by Lisa from Bluestalking Reader. I feel a bit bad including it in a ‘books you might not have heard of’ list, since it’s been all over the blogosphere since then, but just maybe you’ve missed one of the following reviews (I’ve only included blogs I know and like – a search reveals dozens and dozens more! Search via Fyrefly’s Blog Search Engine, linked to the left, under People To See):