Book Review: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

I can’t remember how old I was when I first read “The Lottery,” but I have been a Shirley Jackson fan since then. I was excited to learn about this short novel, apparently her last published novel, so I snagged a copy. I had no idea what the novel was about; I simply bought it based on author’s name and started reading it with only the jacket flap as a preview to what it is about.

I liked it, but I wished I had liked it more.

The novel is told by an unreliable (or, at least, extremely subjective) narrator named Mary Katherine (aka Merricat). Her voice is so off (not as in an author’s mistake, but as in there is something “off” about her character) that the whole time I was constantly putting together clues to figure out what her real deal is. It’s not too hard to guess the truth, which was a little disappointing. I wanted the mystery to be even more mind-blowing than it was. I don’t think it was a fault of the novel: I think my expectations were unfair. I think that, knowing Jackson, I was expecting a twist…and expecting a twist ruined the experience for me.

Without giving away too much, as there are spoilers if revealing the entire plot: the novel follows Merricat, who lives with two family members—her sister Constance and her uncle, Julian, who is nearing death. Okay, there is Jonas, too, Merricat’s cat. Merricat does weird things: she makes up power words and buries things in the yard—her own form of witchcraft. She also spends lots of time outdoors, doesn’t like to brush her hair, etc. In short, she is what I would have called a “witch” when I was a kid.

We learn that Merricat and Constance’s family was all killed years ago when they consumed poisoned sugar at dinner. The three main characters are the three survivors: Merricat had been sent to her room during dinner, Constance doesn’t like sugar and had none, and Uncle Julian had some of the sugar but didn’t die (but consuming the arsenic caused his current condition). After the unfortunate dinner, Constance was put on trial but eventually acquitted. Julian spends most of his days reminiscing about the event, which he knows so many details about but also can barely believe happened. He is living in un-reality and basically waiting to die. In the meantime, he is working on a book about the murders.

Everything is going as fine as circumstances would allow—Constance is constantly cooking for the others as well as taking care of Uncle Julian, while Merricat usually wanders around outside (though she goes into the village from time to time and observes that others in town seem to judge her). A few in the town seem to want to reach out, but Merricat keeps us skeptical of them and their motives.

All turns south when Merricat and Constance’s cousin shows up and seems to want to claim the family’s fortune and oust Merricat and Julian. Merricat calls him a “ghost” and a “demon.” She hates him and wishes him dead. I won’t go into further details so as not to ruin the novel, except to say that the house almost becomes a character. Merricat and Constance seem to keep the house exactly as it was before the murders, and if anything is disturbed, as it is when their cousin arrives, Merricat gets quite angry.

The novel was short—only about 150 pages—but it did not read quickly for me. For the entire novel, the characters are in their house or property (Merricat briefly goes into town), giving it a claustrophobic feel. This is part of the charm of the novel—emulating their lives—but also a liability. There is so much about what they request Constance cook for them, what they have to wash or clean, etc., that I felt at times it could have used some editing. But I think the author intended it this way—to mirror what their lives are like.

I did appreciate two things. First, Merricat’s misanthropy was chilling, and I liked getting deep into her head, especially the way she notices all kinds of details. She reminds me of myself when I was a kid—young enough to have no responsibilities and thus able to notice and appreciate many of the small things that adults overlook. Only, I was never that negative! Second, I enjoyed the ending. It was somewhat fairy-taleish (I wouldn’t go so far as to say magic realism, but it did require a certain suspension of disbelief). The view seemed slightly more omniscient toward the end. I think if I were an editor, I would suggest the book be written through a series of voices, so that the reader can see how all the voices fit together. This would have perhaps been a more effective way to layer the truth together in way that had a big impact on the reader.

I’m not sorry I read the book, and I would share it with writing students to study use of a limited and highly subjective narrator. I also saw a personal connection to a family member in the unhealthiness of keeping a house exactly as it was: the house begins to take on a meaning it should not inherently have.

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