A general cry out to the world: how can I have lived for so long without knowing about ‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle’ by Shirley Jackson? This book is older than I am, so there is something seriously wrong with the way I receive (or possibly selectively manage not to hear) book recommendations.
In an attempt to remedy the fault, and to assuage my guilt and frustration, my final review post of the year will be dedicated to unpicking the joys of the wonderful, misanthropic, modern classic.
As always, when I start babbling with enthusiasm, it’s best to try and impose some kind of order on my recommendation. Starting with the title then, this story combines all the mythic fairy tale qualities, haunting nostalgia and childish stubbornness you could wish for. Merricat, Constance and Uncle Julian live in fading splendour in their old family home. The young Merricat is the narrator, introducing us to their oddly calm and ordered world, ‘the Blackwoods were never much of a family for restlessness and stirring.’ It’s worth noting though, that there are only three of the dynasty still living in the house, ‘everyone else in my family is dead’.
Despite her isolation, Merrycat appears precociously confident when guiding us through her ritualised routine. Details slowly emerge, the reason for the locals’ distrust of the Blackwoods and the unnusual mortality rate of the tribe are not unconnected. Jackson’s characters are universally wonderful, take Uncle Julian for example, he seems to have dealt with the tragedy by reverting to a state of extreme eccentricity, spending his time writing a family history: ‘I shall commence, I think with a slight exaggeration and go on from there into an outright lie’. Julian isn’t unique though, the whole book is narrated in the frst person and, through omission, subjectivity and unreliability, it takes a very long time for any kind of ‘truth’ to be revealed.
Really, timing is the key to what is so wonderful about the book. The moments of humour (which are often laugh out loud funny), the build up of tension and horror as mysteries are revealed and re-concealed are all successful because of the masterful pace Jackson creates. Comedy, suspence and terror all depend on timing and, at under 150 pages, ‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle’ does not waste a single moment.
Following the traditions of Greek tragedy, Jackson begins the story in medias res, after the significant deaths have occured. The narrative arc then follows the disruption caused to the Blackwood routine when a male cousin interrupts their isolation. Charles is convinced he can control the exaggeratedly female enclave created by Constance and Merricat. As the story progresses, the reference points shift, and it seems to owe less to classical genre conventions and more to the folk or fairy tale tradition. What secrets and powers are held by these two women? Can they protect their outsider status in a patriarchal and conventional society? Who is innocent and who is guilty of the mass-murder that lead to their isolation?
‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle’ is an incredibly powerful presentation of love, hatred, family, femininity and madness. Most importantly, it explores the role of fiction and story-telling in society, before drawing the most ironic and unexpected conclusions. Slipping in at the end of 2015, this is undoubtedly one of my books of the year. It’s a perfect, poisonous little tale, and you’ll have to read it yourself to see quite how right I am!