Monday, June 9, 2008

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Before reading this book by Shirley Jackson, the only other thing I had read of hers was her famous short story, The Lottery. Like most people, I first encountered this story as part of an anthology in an introductory literature class. I was blown away by the story, but for whatever reason, I never sought out any of her other work. To remedy the situation, I recently picked up We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House. They're both relatively short books and by most standards would be considered novellas.

I absolutely love the cover on my Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition. It's a black and white drawing with the two main characters surrounded by the people from the village. The book is deliciously creepy. I really don't know any other way to say it. I knew from the very first lines of the book that I would like it. Here, see what you think.

"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 on both my hands 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."

Isn't that great? Of course, I wanted to know right away what happened to her family. But, Jackson does a great job of slowly revealing just enough to keep the reader interested and turning pages. Mary Katherine or 'Merricat' and her older sister Constance lead a relatively hermetic life in their family home. The only other person there is old Uncle Julian who is wheelchair bound and showing signs of increasing dementia. Merricat is the unfortunate member of the family who must walk to the village weekly and buy the necessary supplies from the grocery store. She also stops by the public library with each visit into town. These visits are extremely uncomfortable for her. She is well aware of how the people in the village view her and her sister. The villagers remind me of the villagers in The Lottery during the stoning scene. However, here they are usually hurling words. It's almost painful to read the lengths that Merricat goes to to deal with her weekly outings. She talks to herself and plays little games to try and take her mind off of the people she encounters.

Constance is usually cheerful and takes good care of Merricat. She is patient and they live pretty normally, except for the fact that they don't go anywhere and don't have visitors. They keep the doors locked at all times and are very skeptical of strangers. It quickly becomes obvious that the rest of their family died of poisoning. This is something that they talk about with each other on a fairly regular basis just as you would talk about the weather or some other insignificant fact. Constance, Merricat and Uncle Julian are the lone survivors of that now infamous meal. Merricat had been sent to her room before supper that night, which happened often since she was a disobedient child. Constance didn't eat any of the sugar on her berries, which is why she was immediately held for questioning (she did all the cooking for the family). Uncle Julian fell ill, but eventually survived, though he was never the same afterwards. There was a trial in which Constance was eventually acquitted, but everyone in the village still believed that she was guilty. So, they shunned the Blackwood sisters and their crazy old uncle.

The girls would have been content to live in this manner indefinitely. However, the outside world wasn't content to leave them alone. Forces beyond their control invade their privacy and set in motion a chain of events that leads to more sorrow and heartache.

I really can't recommend this book highly enough. It is so well-written, and the story develops on several different levels. As with most good literature, everything is not as it seems and things are not necessarily black and white. If you haven't read this one, you'll definitely want to add it to your summer reading list.

17 comments:

Andi said...

Like you, I'm a big fan of The Lottery, and I've never read any of her other stuff. This is a great review and I MUST get my hands on the book!

Gentle Reader said...

I've only read The Lottery by Shirley Jackson, and now I'm wondering why I never sought out her other work :) This sounds good and a little spooky, and I'll have to put it on my list--thanks!

BooksPlease said...

This does sound creepy - another one to look out for.

I've finished The Book Thief and still thinking about it! How about you?

Lisa said...

andi, I think you'll like it. Jackson does such a good job of making the crazy seem perfectly ordinary.

gentlereader, definitely add it to your summer reading list. It's a quick read, but one you'll want to savor.

booksplease, I only have a couple chapters to go on The Book Thief. I was reading some this morning before I got out of my car at work. I didn't want to stop. I'm just at the point where Leisel finds Max as he's marched through town. So far, that has been the saddest part of the whole book for me.

J.D. said...

Lisa -- Thanks for drawing our attention to Jackson's other work--I recall a teacher telling me to dig deeper into her work, but I never got around to it. I will be picking up a copy of this one.

Tara said...

I've had this on my shelf for years - and have yet to read it. I really must get to it. Great review.

Lisa said...

j.d., It sounds like everyone has pretty much had the same experience with Jackson -- introduction through her most famous short story and then nothing else. I can't believe it took me this long to read something else of hers. Hope you enjoy it.

tara, the good thing is you can read this one really quickly. My edition was about 140 pages. Really not all that much longer than a short story. Instant gratification!

Nymeth said...

First Eva, now you... I so need to get my hands on this book. It sounds amazing. Like most people, I've only read The Lottery, which I loved.

And that is indeed a great cover!

Iliana said...

That first paragraph is fantastic! This sounds creepy and all kinds of wonderful so I'll have to add it to my list. Oh and yes, I think I first read The Lottery in an English class.

Lisa said...

nymeth, it sounds like the book gods are definitely trying to tell you to read this book. You won't regret it!

iliana, that first paragraph really does grab you.

thebluestockings said...

Yep. I've only read The Lottery. I'm adding this one to my to-be-obtained-from-the-library-post-haste list. Thanks for reading!

Lisa said...

bluestockings, I know. It's amazing just how many of us stopped after that amazing short story and never went any further with Jackson's work. Maybe it was a subconscious fear that nothing else could live up to that amazing piece of work.

____Maggie said...

The cover art is way creepy! :P

Just stopped by to let you know the Sense of Place Contest is ready for entries! Good Luck if you choose to participate! :)

Lisa said...

maggie, I know, don't you love the cover? Thanks for the reminder. I'm not sure if I'll get the chance to participate or not.

Danielle said...

I've read both this book and The Lottery ages and ages ago, and I'm sorry to say that I've forgotten most of the details about both!! I really should do as you say and add both of them to my summer reading pile. I like books where everything isn't always clear cut and the author gives you things to think about!

Andrea said...

I'm definitely adding this to my TBR list! I read The Haunting of Hill House a couple of years ago and really enjoyed it. Have you seen the movie that is based off of the book?

Lisa said...

danielle, I think that's one of the reasons I really liked this book, as well as The Lottery -- it definitely gives you something to think about. From what I've read, her writing is never predictable or formulaic.

andrea, I haven't read The Haunting of Hill House but have it waiting at home. I will definitely read it this summer. I haven't seen the movies for either. I'll look these up, as well. Thanks!