There are very few books I read with my Last Wednesday All Boys Bookclub (LWABB) which don’t end up dog-eared. In preparation for two hours of fierce conversation I’m often on the look out for choice lines and turns of phrase to drop into the conversation. My favourite quote from Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, for example, which we read last year, was: ‘his gentleness was uncompromising; because he would not compete for dominance he was indomitable’ – which led to an interesting conversation on the nature of power and aggression.
In contrast, my copy of Shirley Jackson’s We have always lived in the castle is completely untouched. Not because there aren’t choice lines or turns of phrase – quite the contrary – but because I was so immersed in the voice, the story and the world that I wasn’t at all paying attention to the ways that the words were arranged on the page, or what they might mean out of the context of their world. As opposed to most other books I read, which go into the pass-on/palm-off pile, this one went straight onto the reread shelf.
First published in 1962, three years before Jackson died, We have always lived in the castle is an intense study in isolation, mental illness, discrimination and greed, told in the first person from the bewitching point of view of the mildly unreliable and extremely obsessive compulsive Mary Katherine (Merricat) Blackwood.
A gothic masterwork in the vein of The Turn of the Screw and Northhanger Abbey, where the threat of danger is simultaneously elusive and tactile, the reader’s gaze turns inwards to examine the characters’ psyches. Jackson’s novella (coming in at a brisk 146 pages) follows the existence of the two Blackwood sisters, Merricat and Constance, whose entire family, except for muddle-headed and wheelchair bound Uncle Julian, are dead, poisoned at the dinner-table six years ago.
Living in an old mansion house on a hill, Merricat and Constance are isolated seemingly both by their own choice and by the long-standing hatred of the villagers. The first chapter sees Merricat in the village, having visited the library and the grocery – ‘it was not pride that took me into the village twice a week, or even stubbornness, but only the simple need for books and food’ – harangued in a coffee shop by Jim Donell the Fire Chief and then hounded all the way home.
This tense opening, with the underlying and ever-present threat of danger, sets the tone for the rest of the story. Merricat’s carefully constructed world – full of things nailed to trees for protection, practical witchcraft, food fetishes and magical words that mustn’t be said – comes under direct threat from family friends, from distant relatives and of course from the villagers.
It’s the intense beguiling beauty of the Merricat’s voice that casts the spell over the reader and draws them into the intimate world of the Blackwood sisters. In her afterword to the Penguin Classics Edition, Joyce Carol Oats ranks Merricat above Harper Lee’s Scout, J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield and Sylvia Plath’s Esther Greenwood as the most memorable of the ‘precocious children and adolescents of mid-twentieth century American fiction.’
It’s high praise, and not undeserved.