P D Dawson
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson (Book Review)
It may be surprising to some people, but I had never heard of Shirley Jackson before reading this book, and so I was surprised to find that she has such a following. Stephen King, Neil Gaiman and the amazing Richard Matheson – author of one of my favourite books – I Am Legend, are just a few well-known authors who claim to have been inspired by her writing. I must point out that I only looked into that once I was halfway through the book. I found her writing so powerful, affecting and strangely melancholy, that I had to find out more about the author before I had finished the book.
The story is told in first person through the eyes of a young tomboy-girl called Merricat, who lives in the Blackwood family home with her sister, Constance, her cat, Jonas, and her uncle Julian. Uncle Julian is the man of the family, but it is Constance who does all of the cooking, cleaning and tending to the garden. We learn that the rest of the family have all since died from an unfortunate incidence of food poisoning. Constance was put on trial for the murders of all that died, but we learn that she was cleared of all charges. Now they live a rather solitary life in the house, whilst being surrounded by the staring and cruel evil eyes of people from the village, who believe that Constance, or her sister Merricat, did in fact kill their family. They are treated mostly as outcasts by all of their neighbours, and every time Merricat goes into the village to get food, they all give her plenty of space, that is apart from the brave few who bully her in the hope that the sisters will pack up and leave town for good. It is always Merricat who has to go to the village for supplies, for since the incident of poisoning and the trial, Constance will only go as far from the house as the vegetable garden. And she is also very busy tending to Uncle Julian, who is wheelchair-bound and gradually losing his memory. The only thing he is sure about, and quite obsessive about, is his papers, which contain his memory and details about the family poisoning.
I must say this story hooked me from the very start, and what made it so brilliant for me were the sad, mellow undertones that come from Merricat. She often says how happy she is to her sister Constance, but I sensed an aching and desperate sadness beneath her skin. And Jackson does a brilliant job of turning the mundane actions in the house, into illuminations of spirit and character. For there are numerous scenes, especially those with Jonas, where the strange and perverse melancholy within the house is almost like a thunder rattling the floorboards, but the fact that thunder makes no sound, only strengthens the eerie and bleak atmosphere of the story. Having said that, the characters are so likeable, and the daily chores they get up to are so simplistic and pleasing, that as a reader we feel a strange cosiness within that world, and perhaps a need for it not to be disturbed. For after all, perhaps to them this is happiness, and we the reader are merely projecting some melancholy onto the page. The ambiguity raised by the author in this point is stunning, and the sense that this humble world that they exist in, will not, and cannot last for long, is what carries are curiosity along.
The arrival of Cousin Charles sure puts an end to the cosy and in some ways perfect lives led by the two sisters, for though Constance is happy to accept him into their home, Merricat doesn’t take to him at all, and in fact does almost everything in her power to make him feel ill at ease, everything from destroying his room, to talking at the dinner table about the different tasteless poisons that can kill. I shall not go into what happens with Charles in the second half of the book, but just when you wonder exactly where, or how Jackson will move the story on, she does so with effortless and cunning invention, and somehow guides the story to a wholly fitting and satisfying end. That end is perhaps a little predictable, but as a reader I was actually pleased, and wouldn’t have wanted it to end any other way.
In summation then, I found this to be a marvellous read, and one whose characters will live on in my head for a long time to come. They are written with such skill and warmth, that they perfectly contrast with the cold, dark and treasure filled house in which they live. I especially loved the relationship with Merricat and Constance, a sisterly love that you feel no secret could ever break.