We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

9/10 It’s a craft in character, the plot imbued with suspense, tension and unease.

Up until a couple of years ago, I was not aware of Shirley Jackson. However, The Haunting of Hill House, both the excellent Netflix series and Dark’s review of the book, changed that. So when I saw We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Penguin Modern Classics) available for only ninety-nine pence as a Kindle daily deal, I had no hesitation in purchasing it and getting stuck right in, to finally read an author that is far more renowned than my narrow field of reading focus had previously allowed for.

When I began reading I was surprised at how British the book seemed. I knew that Jackson was American, and I knew that the book was set in that country, but something about it seemed quintessentially British. I’m not sure if this was me putting my own slant on things, or if other readers experience this too, but it was certainly no bad thing, and helped me feel right at home.

I found the book immediately gripping and Miss Mary Katherine Blackwood, or Merricat, a fascinating narrator. The book’s opening could, with reason, be the definition of an infodump, but here it allows Merricat’s voice to describe the village and its people in a way that builds character to a high degree, and so, after only a couple of chapters, everything has taken on a form. The narration, thanks to Merricat’s internal dialogue, is masterful; she depicts the ‘us against them’ mentality of the Blackwood family - they hate us and we hate them. As Merricat walks into the village to procure groceries, we see the village and meet its people, and we are left in no doubt that they do indeed hate each other. But is Merricat a reliable narrator, are her thoughts based in reality? Is what she is seeing and describing actually happening, or is everything, as was the case in the Haunting of Hill House, more than it seems? And so I was gripped: what is the truth, what has happened, and what on earth is going to happen in the following pages?

The book’s synopsis offers some insight: Living in the Blackwood family home with only her sister Constance and her Uncle Julian for company, Merricat just wants to preserve their delicate way of life. But ever since Constance was acquitted of murdering the rest of the family, the world isn't leaving the Blackwoods alone. And when Cousin Charles arrives, armed with overtures of friendship and a desperate need to get into the safe, Merricat must do everything in her power to protect the remaining family.

You know there’s going to be a twist, or a reveal, at some stage in the book, and much time is spent guessing what it might be. The Blackwood house is a very strange one, Constance and Merricat have closeted themselves off from the community following the poisoning of the entire family many years ago. They have, along with the aging and dementia-suffering Uncle Julian, formed a protective, almost self-reliant life that involves only a weekly trip into the village for supplies. But into this almost idyllic life comes cousin Charles, and he is odious, brilliantly so, and as a reader you will likely side with Merricat in wanting to get rid of him (as ominous as this sounds).

Jackson is very clever at making you slowly doubt the book’s narrative and as Merricat’s behaviour becomes rather erratic, and over the top, you begin to wonder if she is in her right mind.

It is masterfully written, and its 1962 publication date is really irrelevant, this book can and will be read and enjoyed for many, many decades yet.

Like all the best books, it remains with you after the last page is read. I’m sure I missed some things and a re-read would be beneficial, but I don’t want to know everything. It’s a craft in character - Constance, Merricat, Uncle Julian and cousin Charles all excellently evoked, the plot imbued with suspense, tension and unease.

Jackson is a fine writer, one I have come to belatedly but am now in the enviable position of having the rest of her catalogue to read through for the very first time.

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