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

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

We Have Always Lived in the Castle
4 Stars

"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."

And so begins Merricat's story about life for the last surviving members of the Blackwood family. There has been some sort of tragedy in the past, but Mary Katherine doesn't want to talk about it. She does want to talk about how much the villagers hate her family, how much she hates them, and how she wishes she could live on the moon.

Unsettling. That is by far the best word to describe this book.

Odds are that you didn't make it through high school without reading Shirley Jackson's short story, "The Lottery." It would be a tossup between that and "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman for my choice as most disturbing short story ever.

Jackson somehow kept that same tone alive throughout a novel.

Short stories are generally creepier for me than novels are. Authors end up explaining too much in a novel and I'm able to put them out of my head. But all those unresolved questions in short stories cause them to stay with me in a way that very few novels do.

But Jackson pulled that off here. Wow.

So much of the eeriness comes from Mary Katherine, or Merricat, herself. She's eighteen, but it's almost like her mind stopped progressing at twelve, which is when the tragedy happened. I don't mean that she's "challenged" in anyway, it's just that she doesn't really see the need to grow up. I found myself constantly questioning her motives and her truths. Are her truths widely-accepted truths? And if not, who are you supposed to believe?

There is the feel of a hedge witch about Merricat. She has daily tasks that she sets herself, and part of that is making sure that their property is secure from strangers. Oh, she does check the locks, gates, and fences, but she also makes sure that the talismans she has hung from trees and buried in fields are also intact.

I felt sorry for her sister Constance. Constance is apparently beautiful and she seems to be happiest when she's taking care of others. But whatever happened in the past has left her ostracized from society, and honestly even agoraphobic. She should be raising a beautiful family, but she's instead trapped living in a museum of a house with her younger sister and her elderly uncle. But she sweetly goes about her days.

I do recommend this book if you're looking for something unexpected and...unsettling. That really is the best word. It was great for Halloween, and I won't be forgetting Merricat or Constance anytime soon.

I picked this up after reading Misty's review at Book Rat.

Buy We Have Always Lived in the Castle at

I have an affiliate relationship with Malaprop's, my local independent bookstore located in downtown Asheville, NC; and Better World Books. I will receive a small commission at no cost to you if you purchase books through links on my site.

4 comments:

  1. Unsettling, creepy, ohhh I'm sold. I did want to read this one this month, unsure if I will get to it though.

    I forgot the Yellow Wallpaper, oh my, great memory.

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  2. I picked up a copy of this one at the used book sale, haven't gotten to it yet. The Yellow Wallpaper was ... interesting. I remember wanting to slap the poor woman's husband and being grateful that, while we aren't yet perfect, we have a much better understanding of mental health.

    Cheers!

    ReplyDelete
  3. This is a good one. I agree, unsettling is probably the best way to describe this book.

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  4. I have been looking for a good, creepy book with Halloween right around the corner. Sounds like just the thing!

    ReplyDelete

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