8 March 2011
9. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
Our protagonist and narrator is 18 year old Mary Katherine Blackwood, or Merricat to her family, who lives with her older sister Constance, wheelchair bound Uncle Julian and a cat, Jonas, in their family home in an unidentified small town in America. We learn gradually, but early on, that the rest of the family was poisoned six years ago by arsenic in their food. Constance was tried but acquitted for the murder of the rest of the family and since then the remnants of the family have lived in isolation from the rest of the village. Constance never leaves the house and they stick to their rigidly planned days.
The novel opens with one of Merricat's weekly visits to the village to buy food and get library books, a weekly trial for her as she is stared, whispered and laughed at by the villagers. Her attempt to appear normal by visiting the coffee shop are thwarted by two village men taunting her. We learn early on that Merricat is most defintely an anti-heroine, with her frequent references to wishing her tormenters were dead and burying things around her house to protect her family. If we didn't know otherwise, you would think she was much younger than 18.
Merricat wants things to stay as they are forever and when their cousin Charles arrives to try to 'normalise' them, Merricat tries more and more drastic plans to protect her way of life - replacing all of Charles' books with leaves or hanging her mothers jewellery from trees to make their house reject Charles. Constance spends her time gardening and cooking whilst mentally ill Uncle Julian spends his time replaying the day that the family died and making endless notes for his book. We are torn between wanting Merricat to succeed in getting rid of the awful Charles and the underlying knowledge that this spiteful and precocious girl is descending further and further into a kind of fervoured isolation.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a dark and ominous book. We learn more about the poisoning but we never really find out what exactly happened or why. Whilst the ending is satisfying, it is not exactly resolved. It is a disconcerting look into a society where a small village has turned on a family and the frightening mentality that groups can have. Right and wrong are never clear and the story is unsettling and dark. It is one for readers who enjoy reading rather than just plot and is quite unlike anything I've ever read before.