Musings on We Have Always Lived In the Castle

You guys. Why didn’t you (my friends, book group members, library patrons, and all three blog readers,) tell me how awesome Shirley Jackson was?  Okay, you’re right, I’m sure that you tried.  Sometimes books and authors just take a while to find their way to a reader. It’s exciting, finding a “new” (old) author and realizing that I’ve just scratched the surface of their work.

I finished We Have Always Lived In the Castle last night.  It’s brilliant.  Unsettling and sad rather than scary.  I’m reluctant to summarize the plot lest I spoil anything for a new reader.  It’s a slim,powerful, and enchanting book.  You’ve got two sisters: the elder, Constance, who is extremely agoraphobic, and Merricat, who is whimsical and unstable.  They live in a rambling old house in the woods outside of the village, along with their invalid Uncle Julian.  The rest of the family, as Merricat tells us in the first paragraph, is dead.  They were murdered by arsenic poisoning in the sugar bowl.  Most of the villagers are hostile and cruel, and believe that Constance killed her family.  She was acquitted of the crime.

This is gothic fiction at its finest.  Merricat is an enchanting anti-heroine, desperate to keep the rhythms of her routine with Constance and Julian the same. She has a cat sidekick named Jonas, and secret places in the woods where she sits and daydreams and buries treasures to keep what’s left of her family safe.   She says the most incredible things – some of them beautiful, like this:

“The trees around and overhead were so thick that it was always dry inside and on Sunday morning I lay there with Jonas, listening to his stories. All cat stories start with the statement: “My mother, who was the first cat, told me this,” and I lay with my head close to Jonas and listened. There was no change coming, I thought here, only spring; I was wrong to be so frightened. The days would get warmer, and Uncle Julian would sit in the sun, and Constance would laugh when she worked in the garden, and it would always be the same. Jonas went on and on (“And then we sang! And then we sang!”) and the leaves moved overhead and it would always be the same.”

Some of them are frightening, like this, after another hostile encounter with the villagers on her weekly grocery shopping trip:

“I would have liked to come into the grocery some morning and see them all, even the Elberts and the children, lying there crying with the pain of dying. I would help myself to groceries, I thought, stepping over their bodies, taking whatever I fancied from the shelves, and go home, with perhaps a kick for Mrs.Donell while she lay there. I was never sorry when I had thoughts like this; I only wished they would come true.”

Change is coming to the small, fanciful world of the Blackwood sisters, no matter how many talismans Merricat nails to trees or secret words she holds in her thoughts.  The ending is simultaneously sad and hopeful, sort of like a twisted fairy tale.  Castle is a strange, charming little book.  I must now read everything Shirley Jackson has written, even if I’m the last to this party.

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