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.