We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

22 September, 2011

I’ve seen lots of reviews of this book on blogs in the last two years and although I’m late to the party, I’m mighty glad I read this. I was expecting some sort of ghost story à la The Woman in Black by Susan Hill, but it’s more akin to Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns both in style and ambience. Which is a good thing in my book because I loved it. This is my first novel by Shirley Jackson (not counting her short story The Lottery which I read on Simon T’s blog and was seriously impressed), and like with Comyns, I plan to read more.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is set in 1960s New England, although it could almost be transplanted to early 20th century England (or even earlier). The castle is Blackwood House, tainted by tragedy and inhabited by the remaining members of the wealthy Blackwood family, sisters Constance and Mary Katherine (Merrycat) and their wheelchair-bound Uncle Julian. The villagers shun the Blackwoods and either ignore or taunt them, especially 18 year old Merrycat who goes out to do the weekly shopping. Her sister Constance, now 28, has not stepped outside the house for over 6 years since she was acquitted of poisoning her family. And Uncle Julian alternates between wanting to recall and write about the night of the tragedy and being unable to recall anything. Although strange and coccooned, this is a happy and carefree existence for the family where Merrycat is free to make up the rules of her life to keep the family safe. That is until their cousin Charles arrives, taking over the house, trying to assert control and always enquiring about the money that he knows Constance hides in the safe. As Merricat becomes agitated by the presence of her bullying cousin, things slowly spiral out of control as what was kept safely at a distance slowly encroaches and threatens the sanctity of their daily life.

Although I wasn’t really surprised by the main revelation of this story, I have to say I was impressed by the tension and the sense of doom with which Jackson imbues the arrival of Charles into the Blackwood House. Both Constance and Merrycat are characters you empathise with even though you slowly begin to see that all may not be as it seems in that household. Yet the love between the two sisters is touching and you can’t help but root for their survival.

As well as being a story of family secrets and dynamic, this is also a story of the divide between the wealthy landowners and the villagers and the blistering hatred and suspicion arising from their differences. The thing that softens what could easily be an unpleasant and harsh view of prejudice is Jackson’s constant references to food, from Constance’s culinary creations to the offerings laid out on the front doorsteps by the villagers. Of all the characters, my heart goes out to Constance who is happiest when cooking for her family and preserving fruit.

Although a short novella, We Have Always Lived in the Castle certainly packs a powerful punch. I’m not sure whether I was entirely satisfied with the ending, but I dare you not to feel a chill when reading it.

I read this as part of the R.I.P. VI Challenge.

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27 Responses to “We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson”

  1. Marce Says:

    I have also seen this over the past 2 years and keep considering it. I like the idea of feeling a chill…….

  2. Nymeth Says:

    “Sense of doom” is a perfect way to put it! I liked the ending because it added to that.

  3. Steph Says:

    I think I am the one book blogger out there who read this novel and just wasn’t all that moved by it. Maybe I had been too overwhelmed by all the rave reviews before I finally picked it up and so I had inappropriate expectations, but whatever it was, while I liked the book just fine, I wasn’t blown away and personally didn’t see why everyone gets in such a tizzy about it. To me it was a solid read, but not one that stuck with me very much…

    • sakura Says:

      That often happens with me too Steph, so I like to keep some distance between reading all the wonderful reviews and actually reading the book (well, that’s my excuse for getting to books so late). I think part of the reason why I liked it so much was also not knowing what to expect. But then there are loads of other books where I really can’t understand what all the fuss is about too, so it’s good to have differing views:)

  4. deslily Says:

    nice review! I haven’t read it yet…but it’s on my list…along with many others! lol

  5. Anna D. Says:

    Great review! This one is also on my list to read for this challenge. I’m super excited to start reading it. I’ve only ever read her short stories before, and those are all pretty superb.

    • sakura Says:

      I’ve only read one short story by Jackson but it really creeped me out (The Lottery) and I’ll be looking out for more. Hope you enjoy this one Anna.

  6. Mystica Says:

    I just read a review of another book by her and thought that I too have not got to this one as yet. Such good reviews around on this one. Thanks for the post.

  7. Violet Says:

    I love this book. It is so well-written and hits all the right notes. However, for me, it is a wonderful black comedy, and I chuckled my way through it, rather than feeling chilled. I just re-read it, and posted my thoughts on my site.

  8. Harriet Says:

    I’ve heard so much about this book but never read it — but your great review makes me want to. Thanks.

  9. Kailana Says:

    I really enjoyed this book. I really must read something else by her! Great review!

  10. Simon T Says:

    Oh, you make me so happy, Sakura! Is this the year where you’ll be reading all my favourite books? 😉 So glad you liked this. I think I must be the only person who *was* surprised by the ‘twist’.

    • sakura Says:

      Ha ha, all your recs have hit the spot. Looking forward to reading Edward Carey’s books now:) I think I’ve read too many creepy books and mysteries in the past that it’s quite difficult to surprise me with twists at the end.

  11. gaskella Says:

    I loved this too. Like you I wasn’t surprised by the reveal, but did love the atmosphere of paranoia, suspicion and jealousy.

  12. trish Says:

    I just read my first Shirley Jackson – The Haunting of Hill House – and was thoroughly creeped out. I loved it! I’m now on the lookout for We Have Always Lived . . . and The Lottery.

  13. Richard Says:

    I had this checked out from the library a while back, Sakura, and now you make me wish I had made the time to read it before returning it (I had too many other books in progress, so I returned it). Like what you say about the class dynamics and the mysterious ending–even if the latter wasn’t exactly a favorite part for you.


  14. I have this to read- sounds like I need to get to it soon!


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