Friday 2 October 2009

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

28. We Have Always Lived in the Castle - Shirley Jackson

Well done to those who correctly guessed We Have Always Lived in the Castle from the image I shared
the other day - and well done to those with the foresight to have bought the book already. As well as being my favourite ever book title (doesn't it make you want to read the book, without reading a word more about it?) this is a quite brilliant novel. Initially published in 1962, this great image is from the new Penguin reprint in the UK. I first read the novel in 2006, I think, and re-read it yesterday, just to make sure it was still great... a second read removed some of the suspense, of course, because the questions were no longer unanswered - but it actually brought a new dimension to the tale, too, as I shall explain...

I'm going to do my best to write about this book sans-spoilers, since it has so many wonderful twists and turns. I'm going to give away much less than most reviews do, so if you want to try We Have Always Lived in the Castle from the same starting point I did, perhaps don't follow the links at the bottom...

The opening paragraph gives a few important bits of information:

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.

The first chapter shows Mary Katherine - also known as Merricat - walking through the local town, seeing the trip like a board game; she 'misses turns' if she crosses the street, for example. 'The people of the village have always hated us.' What a stunning first chapter Shirley Jackson has written - without knowing why the Blackwood family are pariahs, we feel such tension, such awkwardness and fear as Merricat makes her way through the village. And she is the victim of childish chants:

Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?
Oh no, said Merricat, you'll poison me.
Merricat, said Connie, would you like to go to sleep?
Down in the boneyard ten feet deep!

Once home, she is not in a world of normality.
Merricat believes she can protect her family and her house through nailing books to trees, burying marbles on the land, and storing away words - melody, Gloucester, Pegasus - which, so long as they aren't spoken aloud, will prevent danger. Because the novel is from Merricat's first person perspective, these superstitions are spoken without any defensiveness or recognition of a lack of logic. Which transports the reader into a surreal, unsettling viewpoint... Constance is more normal, though agoraphobic, unable to move beyond the perimetres of Blackwood land. Uncle Julian, the other remaining Blackwood, is obsessively creating a history of what happened to the family, especially the night they died. He is also mentally disintegrating, every bit as unsettling as Merricat's bizarre internal logic. Oh, and then there's the rather wonderful cat, Jonas, the only truly sane member of the family.

Though a short novel, Jackson packs a huge amount in. Not only the readers' curiosity to discover what happen
ed to the rest of the Blackwood family, but also a consuming tension in the atmosphere of the novel. This was Jackson's last novel, and (of the three I've read) the best - suffering from agoraphobia herself whilst writing it, she perfectly creates the joint security and terror of the home. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is Gothic from the title onwards, but Jackson also writes a fascinating psychological study - this slim book has everything, and on re-reading is all the more impressive, for the clues and presentiments scattered throughout. The pace quickens, the events escalate, but the tone never eases and Merricat's unique angle on the world never lessens.

When I first read We Have Always Lived in the Castle, I hadn't heard of either the book or the author - it was in a postal book group, sent by Lisa from Bluestalking Reader. I feel a bit bad including it in a 'books you might not have heard of' list, since it's been all over the blogosphere since then, but just maybe you've missed one of the following reviews (I've only included blogs I know and like - a search reveals dozens and dozens more! Search via Fyrefly's Blog Search Engine, linked to the left, under People To See):

Books Please (spoiler-free)
The Bookling
The Asylum
A Striped Armchair
Books and Cooks
Things Mean A Lot


  1. Thank you for including my link! I agree, it's best to go into this book knowing as little as possible. I need to read it again, as I'm sure that, like you said, I'll notice several things I missed before.

  2. Thanks for linking to me! I've had your blog in my Google Reader for ages, but I'm not sure I've commented before. :)

    When I reviewed the book, I told people they should go into it knowing nothing! So I divided my review in half so I could talk about all of the deliciouness with others who had already read it. ;)

    Anyway, it does have a marvelous title. I think there's something about 'Castle', since I also love the title (and book) I Capture the Castle. It'd be fun to do a list of books with that theme!

  3. If I hadn't already preordered Howards End is on the Landing and bought two books for Simon S's Sensation Season already this month (and it's only the 2nd!) I would be buying this right now but I think it's going to have to wait until my next paycheck comes sounds marvellous and I am so excited to read it! As much as I am a wimp I can't resist books like this with loads of twists and turns!

  4. I had never heard of this -- it sounds great -- I really want to read it!

  5. After seeing you on Wednesday, I started to read this yesterday but so far have only had time to read one chapter. So far I adore it. I am actually quite annoyed with Penguin for the synopsis on the back; it would be much more suspenseful and exciting to read the first chapter without knowing.

    Have you read The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne? I am very much reminded of it as their premises are very similar, at least at the moment.

    I am so glad that I had already pre-ordered this title but after reading "The Lottery" I couldn't resist. I think the first time I read about it may have been on Nymeth's blog and I have wanted to read it since so very pleased it is readily available in the UK now. I think you would be surprised by how many people in the UK haven't heard of Shirley Jackson until now - it definitely deserves a place on your list!

  6. Thanks for the link! I now have a book of Jackson's short stories that I had to reserve from the library. It's the only one of her books in the Devon library system and I think Exeter must've had it stored in the cellar! I find it very odd that such a classic American author is almost unknown in the UK.

  7. This has been on my list for ages, but I still haven't gotten around to it. And, boy oh boy, the new UK cover is so much more appealing than the U.S. cover I've been seeing.

  8. I had read this blindly and you're right--it is quite unsettling. I'm glad to hear it holds up to a reread!

  9. I didn't know about Jackson's agoraphobia. I would love to go back and read it again with that in mind. This was definitely a book that warrants a re-read anyway.

  10. Thanks for linking to me. I love this book, such a macabre tale, so weird and wonderful. Now I want to read more of Jackson's books.Do you know of a biography?

  11. So interesting to see the photo cropped on the cover - looking out or in? You've reminded me that I meant to get hold of more of her work and I am off to locate some now!

  12. Margaret - there is one called Private Demons by Judy Oppenheimer, which I haven't read, but it looks quite tricky to track down, in the UK at least...

    Nymeth - you're welcome! Do try a re-read sometime... it's so short, you could do it in a couple of hours.

    sequesterednooks & Kirsten - see above!

    Eva - thanks for commenting, good decision on splitting the review into spoilers and non-spoilers! And 'castle' in a title does give that air of mystery, doesn't it? Maybe The Enchanted Castle by E Nesbit should be next...

    Rachel - it's only a matter of time!

    Claire - I haven't read any Hawthorne... maybe I should. Can't wait to read your thoughts on WHALITC.

    Teresa - it's a great cover, isn't it?

    Cath - isn't it bizarre that nobody speaks of her in England? Maybe the reprints will change that.

    Harriet - enjoy! Easy to track down, but you're welcome to borrow my copy if you like.

  13. Peta - isn't that a clever effect? I always thought looking in, until I saw the wider photograph.

  14. Simon and Margaret, Shirley Jackson has written two autobiographical books, Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons, both about having children, raising them, and living in Vermont I believe. A blogging friend told me they are excellent. A list of her books is here:

  15. This sounds amazing Simon. I really really want to read it now; the stuff I'd read on Amazon didn't grab me, but this does.

  16. That is definitely one of the best openings for a book that I've ever seen. It introduces the situation and the character so well, in so few words.

  17. I read this book for the first time in junior high, and was completely engulfed in the world Shirley Jackson had created. Something about Merricat--her internal logic, her totemic view of the world and its workings, and her use of sympathetic magic--probably would have had her branded as a witch in another century. She is beautifully realized in all her unsettling glory.

    "The Haunting of Hill House," a story of several friends who investigate paranormal activity in a "haunted" house, is another of Jackson's novels that's well worth a read, IMO. It has a more adult structure than "We Have Always Lived in the Castle," but the same unsettling quality.

  18. dude wtf this book sucks so bad


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