Monday, September 15, 2014

Review: We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Title: We Have Always Lived in the Castle
Author: Shirley Jackson
Pages: 160
Format: E-book
Publisher: Penguin Classics


Visitors call seldom at Blackwood House. Taking tea at the scene of a multiple poisoning, with a suspected murderess as one's host, is a perilous business. For a start, the talk tends to turn to arsenic. "It happened in this very room, and we still have our dinner in here every night," explains Uncle Julian, continually rehearsing the details of the fatal family meal. "My sister made these this morning," says Merricat, politely proffering a plate of rum cakes, fresh from the poisoner's kitchen. We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson's 1962 novel, is full of a macabre and sinister humor, and Merricat herself, its amiable narrator, is one of the great unhinged heroines of literature. "What place would be better for us than this?" she asks, of the neat, secluded realm she shares with her uncle and with her beloved older sister, Constance. "Who wants us, outside? The world is full of terrible people." Merricat has developed an idiosyncratic system of rules and protective magic, burying talismanic objects beneath the family estate, nailing them to trees, ritually revisiting them. She has made "a powerful taut web which never loosened, but held fast to guard us" against the distrust and hostility of neighboring villagers.

Or so she believes. But at last the magic fails. A stranger arrives -- cousin Charles, with his eye on the Blackwood fortune. He disturbs the sisters' careful habits, installing himself at the head of the family table, unearthing Merricat's treasures, talking privately to Constance about "normal lives" and "boy friends." Unable to drive him away by either polite or occult means, Merricat adopts more desperate methods. The result is crisis and tragedy, the revelation of a terrible secret, the convergence of the villagers upon the house, and a spectacular unleashing of collective spite.

The sisters are propelled further into seclusion and solipsism, abandoning "time and the orderly pattern of our old days" in favor of an ever-narrowing circuit of ritual and shadow. They have themselves become talismans, to be alternately demonized and propitiated, darkly, with gifts. Jackson's novel emerges less as a study in eccentricity and more -- like some of her other fictions -- as a powerful critique of the anxious, ruthless processes involved in the maintenance of normality itself. "Poor strangers," says Merricat contentedly at last, studying trespassers from the darkness behind the barricaded Blackwood windows. "They have so much to be afraid of."

My thoughts:

I remember hearing Shirley Jackson's name very often from fellow bookworms. However, I'm not sure who told me about this book. I've probably seen her name while I was reading about Neil Gaiman or Stephen King because Shirley Jackson is among names that inspired these two. I wish I hadn't waiting this long to read her works.

In We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Mary Katherine Blackwood lives in the Blackwood House with her older sister Constance Blackwood and their uncle Julian Blackwood. Blackwoods are among the rich families of the town. However, most of the family (that is, everyone except the three that I just listed the names of) have passed away; Mary Katherine, Constance and Julian have been spending all their time at home since. Due to the suspicious events that took place (you don't see what it is until toward the very end of the book, so I'm trying not to give you spoilers), the people in town don't like them; they're both annoyed by them and a little scared of them as well.

Constance and Julian never leave the house. Julian is actually a man whose mind comes and goes at times; he spends his entire day trying to figure out what happened to the rest of the family. Constance is responsible for cooking and house chores. In addition, she keeps quite a garden where she grows fruit, vegetables and other plants. Mary Katherine is the only one among them who leaves the house on specific days during the week, and that's just to do the shopping in town. She tries not to talk to anyone or hear what they say behind their backs while she's there.

Like I've said, because the events unfold toward the end of the book, it's hard to explain what's going on without actually telling you what's going on. However, I can say that the pace, tone and feeling of the book is very much close to this song:

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