48HBC 2014, Review #4: We Have Always Lived in the Castle

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Title: We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Author: Shirley Jackson. Publication: First published by Viking Penguin, 1962. Paperback: 214 pages.

Moxie’s castle is far less atmospheric than the eponymous castle of Shirley Jackson’s final novel. Or, perhaps it’s equally atmospheric but the atmosphere is one of repose. She does some of her best flopping in there.

It’s fitting that this was Jackson’s last novel, as it’s also to be my last novel. I think I’m calling it quits, pals. I’m bowing out early and Moxie and I are hitting the hay (she, literally; me, figuratively).

Our beds are calling.

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“Moxieeeeeeeee!”

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“Alyishaaaaaa! Come sleeeep! Sleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep….”

But before I slumber, first I must review this fabulous novel.

Goddamn, it was good.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle wasn’t a good mystery. I saw the end coming from a mile away (and maybe I was meant to), but it was a fabulous story. Jackson tells the tale of two sisters, Merricat and Constance, who live alone in a rather fine New England home, with their ill, wheel-chair-bound Uncle Julian. The reader knows that some tragedy has befallen the family and that the three of them are the only ones left alive, but it takes some time to figure out what happened. Finally, we learn that the girls’ mother, and father, and ten-year-old brother, and aunt, and uncle were all poisoned by arsenic at dinner one fateful evening. Their uncle was the only one to survive. Constance is accused of committing the murders but is acquitted. Still, the family is shunned and reviled by the villagers in town, and no one really knows what happened. Mary Catherine is the only one brave enough to venture beyond their property lines for weekly tasks like collecting the groceries. They almost never have visitors, and when they do it’s a production – something to be tensely tolerated but never enjoyed. Constance has a delicate constitution; Merricat has a rich imaginative life but she never truly feels safe; Uncle Julian is feeble, both of body and mind. Despite everything, they’ve managed to carve out for themselves a comfortable routine and they live in relative happiness. Until Cousin Charles visits and then everything goes to hell-in-a-handbasket. Or a trash basket.

What’s so fantastic about it — aside from the expertly created mood and tone, which unsettled me greatly but never crossed a line that made me wish I’d never read it, as some thrillers have done — is the language. Shirley Jackson could write!!! There’s so much beauty! The prose was absolute perfection, from the simplest line: “I sat very quietly, listening to what she had almost said” (122) to more complex descriptions: “All the Blackwood women had taken the food that came from the ground and preserved it, and the deeply colored rows of jellies and pickles and bottled vegetables and fruit, maroon and amber and dark rich green stood side by side in our cellar and would stand there forever, a poem by the Blackwood women” (61). I think my favorite part of the novel is when Mary convinces herself, as only a true obsessive-compulsive could do, that if she thinks of three specific words, and those words are never spoken aloud, that their cousin will leave (as she desperately wishes him to) — and she and Constance and Uncle Julian will be alone and happy again, no part of their life changed by his visit in the slightest. The words she selects are melody, Gloucester, and pegasus. It’s nonsense, and madness, but it’s gorgeous madness.

I wish I had more Shirley Jackson to read. If I’d known that I would fall so in love with her, I would’ve been better-prepared and perhaps she would’ve helped me make it to five novels this year. Next year I’ll be ready! Unless I read everything she’s ever written in the meantime, which is a distinct possibility…

Rating: 4.75 out of 5 arsenic-dusted blackberries.
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2 Responses to 48HBC 2014, Review #4: We Have Always Lived in the Castle

  1. Pingback: 48HBC 2014: Finish Line | No Boys Allowed Reviews

  2. Oh my…I will be reading this one. Oh yes I will!

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