Friday, 7 October 2016

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

I originally downloaded this book because the title caught my eye (I love castles!) along with the cover - and the fact that it was written by Shirley Jackson. I love her style of writing - she is one of the few authors I'm prepared to forgive for not always settling for a traditional happy/satisfying ending. 

The story is told by Mary Katherine Blackwood (also known as Merricat, sometimes affectionately, but often as an insult by the people who live in the village). The Blackwoods are a wealthy family who have lived for generations in a large house surrounded by a large estate. "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 weighting it, and keeping it steady against the world."

Six years ago Merricat's father, mother, aunt and brother all died when arsenic was put into a sugar bowl. Merricat's elder sister Constance was arrested for the murders, but acquitted due to lack of evidence. Their Uncle Julian was the only other survivor. Everyone in the village hates the Blackwoods, although it is unclear whether this is due to their wealth, because they are 'different' or because one of them is believed to be a murderer. Merricat refuses to be intimidated and visits the village every Tuesday to buy groceries. Constance is agoraphobic and does not like to leave the house; Uncle Julian's mind is going and he is confined to a wheelchair.

At the start the story reads like a mystery. Why do the villagers hate the family so much? What did happen six years ago? Who was the murderer? The answers are dripped in very, very slowly. The writing style is deceptively simple and yet the tension curls tighter and tighter. It is closer to psychological suspense than horror. Is Merricat an 'unreliable' narrator? Every word she speaks is the truth - but it's the truth as she sees it. She casts spells, buries objects or nails them to the trees in the wood. Is she a witch or just completely bonkers? 

When their estranged cousin turns up, hoping to divide and conquer, and make off with the family fortune, you just know it won't end well. But don't under-estimate the Blackwoods. They have always lived in the castle - and they always will.

Recommended if you love claustrophobic psychological suspense in the style of The Turn of the Screw. Avoid if you're a fan of fast-paced jump shocks and gore.

About the Author

Shirley Jackson was born in California in 1916. When her short story The Lottery was first published in The New Yorker in 1948, readers were so horrified they sent her hate mail; it has since become one of the most iconic American stories of all time. Her first novel, The Road Through the Wall, was published in the same year and was followed by five more: Hangsaman, The Bird's Nest, The Sundial,The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, widely seen as her masterpiece. In addition to her dark, brilliant novels, she wrote lightly fictionalised magazine pieces about family life with her four children and her husband, the critic Stanley Edgar Hyman. Shirley Jackson died in her sleep in 1965 at the age of 48.

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