Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Book Review: We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson

We Have Always Lived in the Castle
by Shirley Jackson
214 pages

Shirley Jackson is such a master at nuance, at setting a mood - which makes her stories (and this novel) all the more disturbing. 

I mean that in a good way. 

We Have Always Lived in the Castle has been on my want-to-read list for quite some time, and my interest only intensified after seeing it on many a blogger's list for Carl's annual R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril Challenge.  Like many others, I loved Shirley Jackson's haunting short story "The Lottery," which I read in the 5th grade.  It has taken me three decades to read anything else by this extraordinarily talented writer. 

Now, it must be said that I was a little scared to read this because I had heard how disturbing and scary this one was, and I don't do disturbing or scary (unless we're talking about some of my former boyfriends).  I am not a fan of being creeped out voluntarily. Never have been, probably never will be. 

But Shirley Jackson?  I couldn't resist.  Because I'm almost 42 and I still remember how wonderfully written "The Lottery" was when I read it more than three decades ago. 

We Have Always Lived in the Castle did not disappoint.  Like "The Lottery," it is a commentary on society enveloped in a story about two sisters, Constance and Mary Katherine (who is called "Merricat") Blackwood, who live in their family's home with their ailing Uncle Julian.  The Blackwoods are reclusive, with Mary Katherine going into the nearby village once or twice a week for food and library books.  (I love that library books are necessities.)

As for the rest of the family, well ... they all met an unfortunate end in which (for various reasons) only Constance, Mary Katherine, and Julian survived.  The tragedy affects each of them differently, with Constance assuming the role of the family leader and protector, Mary Katherine becoming even more unhinged by burying household items and heirlooms in the gardens and talking about living on the moon, and addled Uncle Julian forever reliving that fateful day by clinging to the shards of his deteriorating memory by meticulously (and painstakingly) chronicling the details in his own version of a novel. 

They all go on living their solitary lives together until a cousin, Charles, shows up at the door.  Immediately, he and Mary Katherine take a strong dislike to one another ... and his very presence seems to serve as a precursor to expose their quirky life and bring their carefully constructed existence crashing down. 

"Above us the stairs were black and led into blackness or burned rooms with, incredibly, tiny spots of sky showing through. Until now, the roof had always hidden us from the sky, but I did not think that there was any way we could be vulnerable from above, and closed my mind against the thought of silent winged creatures coming out of the trees to perch on the broken burnt rafters of our house, peering down. .... I could feel a breath of air on my cheek; it came from the sky I could see, but it smelled of smoke and ruin. Our house was a castle, turretted and open to the sky." (pg. 176-177)

It all seems like a simple story, but this is a Shirley Jackson story and there's nothing simple about a Shirley Jackson story. As I said earlier, it was the behavior of the townspeople that really struck me.  Whenever Merricat goes into the village, she is always met by taunts and teasing, contempt, and derision. (This is from kids as well as adults - who you would think would know better, but clearly don't.)

Feeling so small and like you don't matter is kind of a tough way to live for years on end, so the alternative of becoming a recluse seems pretty appealing.  And when overtures are made to regain the sisters' trust, they're admittedly fearful of the consequences that they believe might prevail.  I'm probably venturing a little too much into spoiler territory here, but the utter cruelty towards this family was unsettling - and brilliant writing on Jackson's part because she takes a climatic episode and infuses it with such details and emotion for pages on end that you almost forget to breathe while reading.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle was written in 1962, but in my opinion, was so ahead of its time because we see this type of behavior so often - the chiding of the perceived outcasts among us, the willingness to go along with the pack.  And ultimately, it is this behavior - and this knowledge that it is still so prevalent today - that left me a bit sad but even more in awe of Shirley Jackson's immeasurable talent of capturing a mood and placing her reader right in the maelstrom of its delicious suspense. 

What Other Bloggers Thought:

OK, there are no less than a bazillion brilliant reviews of this by other bloggers. For reals. I started listing and linking them and after the first dozen or so and realizing I will truly get nothing else done today, I've decided to just direct you to the Book Blogger Search Engine here on the sidebar of my blog.  Just type in "We Have Always Lived in the Castle" and follow the links (warning: there are some with spoilers) till your heart is content. 

copyright 2011, Melissa, The Betty and Boo Chronicles If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.


Elizabeth said...

I love this book and might pick it up again to reread. And "The Lottery" -- wow. I think Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily" might be the only other short story with as much shock value.

Bookfool said...

I think I'm the only person on the planet who didn't like this story OR "The Lottery" (although I've read the book of short stories also named "The Lottery" by Jackson and I was impressed by her skill). I did like her writing and the creepy factor was way up there. Huh. I don't even remember what I didn't like about the book.

Marce said...

I started to see this everywhere after Carl's blog also. I decided to read it this year Halloween.

Thanks for a great review.

Trisha said...

This is such a wonderful story isn't it? I'm glad you liked it!

nomadreader (Carrie) said...

You've convinced me! I haven't read Jackson since The Lottery either, but this one sounds intense. I think I may save it for a summer evening on the front porch (but perhaps I'm just dreaming of those already...)

christa @ mental foodie said...

This book didn't quite live up to my expectations, probably because I guessed what happened in the end... plus I didn't find it scary or disturbing. Haven't read The Lottery, maybe should give it a try.