P D Dawson
The Sundial by Shirley Jackson (Book Review)
“When shall we live if not now?” ― Shirley Jackson, The Sundial
Spurred on by my love of her novels The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, I couldn’t help but jump in for another dose of Jackson’s wonderfully immersive prose. She seems able to dunk her readers into an entirely new world, and seems to do so most successfully when the action, though not necessarily confined to, mostly takes place in a house. Again, in The Sundial, the central location is a house, but this time it is a big sprawling mansion with considerable grounds left to Mrs Halloran after the death of her son, much to the dismay of her daughter-in-law, the young Mrs Halloran. The house and grounds of the Halloran estate is sealed off from the rest of the world on account of the huge walls and gate that was part of its design - something that will have its uses once the central theme is revealed.
The story begins with a complicated walk through the many characters that make up the house, and at first I admit this did get confusing, but once I was clear about who was who, I began to enjoy the story, and found the different characters and personalities in the story were a delight. The quirkiest character that Jackson has ever penned might just be Aunt Fanny, who sees a vision of her late father when lost in the grounds. He tells her of a coming apocalypse, and demands that she make the entire family stay in the great house, the only place on Earth where they will be safe. The idea is at once thrilling and silly, but one never seems to mind, at least I did not, for the idea itself is as quirky and far-fetched as the characters that make up the house. Rather I surrendered myself to the characters and the situation, and took absolute delight in how easily Aunt Fanny manages to sway the others to her way of thinking, even incredulously Mrs Halloran, who up until that point appeared to be the most sensible and logical one in the family.
What begins with a careful fancy of what might inflict the Earth, soon becomes somewhat of an obsession, and Aunt Fanny takes things to extremes by ordering massive amounts of supplies - truckloads in fact - to see them through the initial days following day zero: when the world has reset and they are its only survivors. She even demands that all the books in the library be burned to make shelf space for these supplies, and once again, much to my surprise, Mrs Halloran and the others go along with it. They are perhaps a little persuaded by a girl who can see the future in an oil-covered mirror, and some of the things she sees do actually happen, though its unclear whether these things happen subconsciously by the girl's portended description of them in advance, or whether the girl had truly seen them.
And so I can honestly say I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and though some readers have said the silliness and overly quirky nature of the story prevented them from investing in it, I on the other hand was delighted by such things and felt it was a breath of fresh air after reading the rather darker and twisted goings on in The Haunting of Hill House. Jackson once again breathes life into a house, and this time, instead of imbuing it with a sense of foreboding and misery, she gives us humour and wit. This book is not about where it all may lead, but is instead about the journey towards an apocalypse, in a world indifferent to its own decay.