Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Review: "We Have Always Lived In The Castle" by Shirley Jackson

Five years ago, an arsenic-filled sugarbowl claimed the lives of the Blackwood family. The three survivors have found peace in their shared isolation: Constance, acquitted of the murder by the courts but not in the minds of the neighbors; her imaginative and slightly feral sister Mary Katherine, called Merricat; and their uncle Julian, crippled in mind and body by the poison that killed the others.

Merricat, a creature of habit and ritual, views herself as the guardian of her troubled family and the groundskeeper of the Blackwood estate. Change is a threat, and any visitor an invader. When a long-estranged Blackwood cousin makes himself at home, and Constance begins to talk of rejoining society, Merricat determines to restore order and expel the intruder by any means necessary. But Constance may no longer be her ally.


We Have Always Lived In The Castle by Shirley Jackson (1962)
5 out of 5 stars 

Complexity of Writing: 4/5
Quality of Writing: 5/5
Strength of Characterization: 5/5
Logic of Plot Development: 5/5
Evocation of Setting: 5/5
Effectiveness of Pacing: 5/5
Resolution of Conflict: 5/5
Emotional Engagement: 5/5
Mental Engagement: 4/5
Memorability: 4/5
Bechdel Test: pass
Diverse Cast: fail
Content Warning: character deaths
Overall Response: I say this very rarely, so listen up: this is a perfect book.


More Thoughts: I've mentioned this before: when someone recommends a book, nine times out of ten, I will put it on hold at the library without even pausing to read the synopsis. (I only write summaries for you, dear reader; on my own, I would go straight into opinionating.) Some long-ago Wikipedia binge left the impression that  We Have Always Lived In The Castle was about murder, but no more than that. When a friend praised Shirley Jackson's writing, it reminded me that I had never followed up on the book. That was all the preface that I had.

From the first page, I was hooked.

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 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 last time I glanced at the library books on the kitchen shelf they were more than five months overdue, and I wondered whether I would have chosen differently if I had known that these were the last books, the ones which would stand forever on our kitchen shelf. We rarely moved things; the Blackwoods were never much of a family for restlessness and stirring. We dealt with the small surface transient objects, the books and the flowers and the spoons, but underneath we always had a solid foundation of stable possessions. We always put things back where they belonged. We dusted and swept under tables and chairs and beds and pictures and rugs and lamps, but we left them where they were; the tortoiseshell toilet set on our mother's dressing table was never off place by so much as a fraction of an inch. Blackwoods had always lived in our house, and kept their things in order; as soon as a new Blackwood wife moved in, a place was found for her belongings, and so our house was built up with layers of Blackwood property weighing it, and keeping it steady against the world. 
I don't know quite what I expected from We Have Always Lived In The Castle, but it turned out to be everything that I would have wanted from a book of that title. (I am personally wounded by the number of magnificent titles squandered on terrible books.) To call it a fairy tale makes it silly; to call it a horror story is a cruel lie. It is an enchantment in written form, in the oldest sense of the word, with all the beauty and darkness that implies.

The bare bones of the novel's plot sound eerie indeed: a pair of juvenile maybe-murderesses shut up in their ancestral home with their last luckless victim, hated and feared by the townspeople below. It is a glimpse of Frankenstein's monster just before the villagers come with their torches, or the prototypical man-eating witch down the street, children daring each other to steal from her garden. One would expect the book to be full of subdued threat and veiled horror.

The surviving Blackwoods, as depicted by Mother Nature
This cold-blooded accounting of plot points fails to capture the novel's unusual brightness of mind and heart. Behind the high walls, the rumors, and the gruesome skipping-rope rhymes, the lives of the surviving Blackwoods are warm and rich and tender. Merricat's magical thinking perfectly complements the shadowed, earthy tension endemic to the village, like a strange sweet wine paired with bitter cheese. Her narration is tonally perfect, so genuine and compelling that the reader rapidly forgets to be cynical. Soon the reader finds the Blackwoods to be a haven of humor and comfort, and the "regular" world to be threatening and confusing.
Since Charles had taken my occupation for Tuesday morning I had nothing to do. I wondered about going down to the creek, but I had no reason to suppose that the creek would even be there, since I never visited it on Tuesday mornings.
In most books about shut-ins, we want them to end "set free" of their self-imposed prison. In most books about murderers, we want them to be proven and to come to justice. In We Have Always Lived In The Castle, we want nothing more than for the Blackwoods--guilty or innocent--to be permitted to live the lives they have chosen. Any intrusion has the effect of a heavy stone flung into a small pond. Suddenly, a peaceful mirrored surface is nothing but mud and frenzy and overspilled bounds.

In such an environment, it's hardly surprising to see mental disorder growing like mushrooms in a dark cellar. But, like mushrooms, it grows soft and shameless and delicate. Uncle Julian relives the day of his family's murder over and over again in a detached, scholarly fashion, compiling notes for the book he will never be cognitively whole enough to complete. Constance is housebound, barely venturing past her garden, but she is also the keeper of the many simple but rigid rules that order their small lives: Mondays are for neatening up; Tuesdays Merricat goes to the village for groceries; Constance is the only one allowed to prepare food.

Merricat herself exhibits what modern readers would leap to identify as obsessive-compulsive behavior, encircling the Blackwood grounds with charms and talismans of her own devising to keep her family safe and the world at bay. (If I am quick to make magical references in this book, it's no more than Merricat deserves.)

I have no critiques about this book, no bones to pick. All I have is a sense of tenderness and wonder, and the faintest of shivers down my spine. Time will tell whether it becomes a favorite; for now, I am content to say this: dear reader, We Have Always Lived In The Castle is a perfect book.

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