Thursday, 8 October 2009

We Have Always Lived in the Castle



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.

I was entranced from this opening line of We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson and was immediately immersed in the mystery and suspense. Mary Katherine/Merricat Blackwood is a fascinating narrator; at once endearing, unreliable, curious, and most definitely memorable. I felt similarly reading this short novel -only 146 pages- as I did whilst reading Jackson's short story "The Lottery" back in June: uneasy. Jackson masterfully builds the sense of unease into an unbearable tension in this incredibly atmospheric and creepy tale.

Merricat, her sister Constance, and confused Uncle Julian live a reclusive life on the Blackwood land outside the village. The villagers are cruel to the Blackwoods and their hatred runs deep; their cruelty is described in Merricat's last visit to the village for provisions and library books but the reason behind their vitriolic and vehement dislike of the family is not revealed until the third chapter. The village children taunt Merricat with the rhyme "Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea? Oh no, said Merricat, you'll poison me" but Constance is presented as lovely and gentle and the sisters are exceptionally close; the bonds of familial and sibling loyalty and affection run deep in this novel.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is sinister and disturbing yet highly enjoyable. Merricat's narrative is exceptionally compelling and her novel outlook on the world is interminable in its uniqueness. I have said little of the plot but that is intentional; suffice to say that we discover how everyone else from the Blackwood family -mentioned in the opening paragraph- died. The suspenseful plot is very intriguing and it is best going into the novel knowing as little as possible to feel the full effects of the suspense built and to appreciate Jackson's craft. The events in the novel are claustrophobic and may be credited to Jackson's own agoraphobia. If you do feel persuaded to enter this wonderful story then please refrain from reading the back cover synopsis of the Penguin re-issued edition photographed above as it reveals the first secret, the revelation of which is built up to, and the true power of this is lost.

This is my second book read for the R.I.P. IV challenge and a thoroughly fitting one at that.

25 comments:

verity said...

This sounds really good; I wouldn't have come across it without you and Simon talking about it. I might read it around Halloween for a spooky sort of read.

savidgereads said...

I have just ordered this off Amazon, I have been in sooo many bookshops over the last week (since seeing yuo and Simon T) and not found a copy in any of them! A must read for me and a fab review by you.

JoAnn said...

There's copy of this book at the top of my tbr pile, so I just skimmed your post... but I did catch that it gave you the same uneasy feeling as "The Lottery". Now I can't wait! Unfortunately, I haven't had much reading time at all these past two weeks and am *still* reading The Woman in White (loving it!).

Nymeth said...

Claustrophobic is indeed an apt description! And that's too bad that the back cover synopsis gives too much away :/ I hate it when that happens, and it's especially sad for readers to have a book like this spoiled for them.

Paperback Reader said...

Verity, it would be perfect for Hallowe'en and is a very quick read (for normal paced readers but especially for you!) I wouldn't have known about it if it wasn't for bloggers and came across it during last year's RIP challenge (before I was blogging myself). Jackson is relatively unknown here in the UK, which is unfortunate; hopefully the new Penguin editions of her works will raise her profile as they are most definitely modern classics.

Simon, bookshops or second-hand ones? Bless Amazon in times like these! Definitely a must-read.

JoAnn, at least you are loving The Woman in White and I'm sure you'll fit this in at some point during the season. This isn't as gut-wrenching horrific as "The Lottery" but definitely disturbing and even insidious.

Nymeth, I found it very close and even suffocating to read; the self-imposed imprisonment in the home is very well-realised.
I am so annoyed at Penguin spoiling the first revelation as the suspense is lost.

Darlene said...

You've really intrigued me with your review, this is one to look for. This would have been just the sort of book I would have devoured as a young teen, I adored all things spooky.

StuckInABook said...

As you know, I love this book, so clever. More Gothic than horror, for those who can't stand horror (like me), but definitely suspenseful and unsettling.

Molly said...

OH - you have really enticed me to start reading this book this afternoon!

I picked it up at the same time I brought home The Haunting of Hill House from my local library. I read the latter book last weekend and will post my review shortly. This one sounds just perfect for the cold, rainy weather we are supposed to experience all day.

Paperback Reader said...

Darlene, it is definitely one to look out for and, if you haven't done so already, I recommend reading "The Lottery" - it's perfect for R.I.P. IV.

Simon, it is definitely more Gothic than horror and I thoroughly enjoyed it and its unsettling nature. This is definitely deserving of a place on your list.

Molly, I hope you enjoy it! It was raining here at the weekend and was the perfect weather for reading it. I'm looking forward to your review of The Haunting of Hill House; I bought copies of them both at the same time and looking forward to reading it soon.

Annabel Gaskell said...

I read this last year and really enjoyed it - very claustrophobic indeed.

I found a deluxe penguin edition from the USA and it has a rather spendid wrap around cover with Merricat and her sister on the front, and all the townspeople on the back in white on black - very evocative.

Tracey said...

This sounds wonderfully creepy - and the 146 pages great for a lazy cold afternoon of reading. I'm tempted - my pool for this challenge is out of control!

Vivienne said...

I think just the title alone is just fabulous.

Paperback Reader said...

Annabel, I have seen the US cover and it is very evocative; I find this Penguin one in comparison to be a little dull albeit a good combination of sinister and innocent.

Tracey, as is mine! I highly recommend this as a great book to while away a rainy afternoon.

Vivienne, isn't it?! It is possibly one of my favourite titles that I've come across in a long, long while; it is evocative of mystery and suspense.

softdrink said...

Great review! I love this book, and agree that the less you know the better the reading experience. And I didn't know Jackson was agoraphobic...that puts an interesting spin on things.

Kailana said...

I really want to read this, but the library doesn't have it! That shocked me, to be truthful...

Paperback Reader said...

softdrink, I learned about Jackson's agoraphobia through the afterword in this edition written by Joyce Carol Oates; this was her last novel and by all accounts the last years of her life were reclusive and she was riddled with bad health.

Kailana, my library didn't have it either, which was why I was so relieved when Penguin reissued it. Shirley Jackson's books should be readily available.

Rebecca Reid said...

Maybe someday I'll be able to handle such suspense, but I am not sure I can handle Shirley Jackson. The Lottery disturbs me.

Cath said...

You captured the essence of this book perfectly. It's a one-off and that's for certain. Not quite as shocking as The Lottery but more intense perhaps. I need to find The Haunting of Hill House now, but in the meantime have a volume of her short stories on my library pile.

Paperback Reader said...

Rebecca, this is certainly less disturbing and horrific that "The Lottery" but has subtle similarities in the cruelty of the villagers. After reading "The Lottery" I was on tenterhooks expecting something truly horrible occurring (like Merricat's cat, Jonas being killed! Luckily nothing like that happened).

Cath, intense is definitely an adjective that best summarises it. I'm looking forward to reading what you think of her other stories and I will succumb to the temptation of buying the Penguin volume at some point.

anothercookiecrumbles said...

Love the title, and although I've never heard of the book, it sounds fantastic.

Paperback Reader said...

It is very good, anothercookie, and shamefully unknown here in the UK.

Heather @ Book Addiction said...

I thought this book was pretty awesome, and your review was great too! I agree that "uneasy" is the best way to describe how the book made me feel.

Paperback Reader said...

Hi Heather, thanks for commenting. This was definitely a great book and I really enjoyed it, despite the uneasiness. It is subtly crafted and one that is deserving of more accolades.

Thomas said...

I am so glad I took your advice and didn't read the blurb on the back of the book. But since this is first I have read your review of this book, I must have been channeling you.

Paperback Reader said...

Thomas, I sent the reading instructions telepathically. I hate having a book spoiled.