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

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A Classic Written by a Woman

Admittedly, I am not a huge fan of Shirley Jackson. While I did enjoy “The Lottery” in the past, something about her writing has always bored me to tears. Maybe she is too descriptive? Is that possible? My vivid imagination prefers to do the work and weave the images in my mind. She gives me too much. At any rate, I’ve avoided reading anything by her since completing a book of her shorter works back in early 2000. I did choose  We Have Always Lived in the Castle for the Back to Classics Challenge after reading some positive reviews about it on GoodReads.

A quick summary. “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” tells the story of Merricat and Constance Blackwood, sisters who live in s large house in a small town with their Uncle Julian, and a cat. Their entire family has been murdered by arsenic which was sprinkled in the sugar bowl and eaten during dinner. Merricat was spared because she was sent to her room without supper and Constance never took sugar. Uncle Julian was just lucky although he has been harmed both mentally and physical by the small amount of poison of which he ingested. They are tormented by the townspeople – adults and children alike – and while Merricat ventures out into town once a week, Constance and Uncle Julian are recluses, with Constance suffering from what seems like social anxiety. They have cut themselves off from the town as much as they could and continue to live their lives in the comfort of their secluded home. This changes which a cousin with sinister intentions arrives.

Jackson is quite skilled at bringing her characters to life. The sisters, Constance and Merricat, have a somewhat silly relationship and while Constance is the eldest sister, she seems a lot more fragile than her younger sibling. Merricat is eighteen, yet she lives in a fantasy world that is more aligned with that of a seven-year old. This is not because she is unable to deal with life but because she believes in the impossible and puts her faith in the unseen and unknown. She travels to the moon, hides away in a fort, and practices magic to keep them all protected. Constance, while mature and more competent than her sister at practical matters, is strange in her own right. She relies on an unspoken order to things and works diligently at raising Merricat. Then there is Uncle Julian, the quirky last surviving patriarch who wants to write his story but can’t find the sanity to do it all. He spends his days rambling about notes and eating small yet elaborate meals prepared by Constance and siting outside. He is quite aware of what is going on even when his mind muddles the information it tries to process.

The characters are, for me, the best and worst part of this novel. They sucked me in and I wanted more. Jackson doesn’t give enough story to make one feel satisfied upon reaching its end. There are questions – not plot-specific questions, but rather questions about this family, these relationships that seem passionate enough to incite murder but unimportant enough to discuss. If you are like me, you will want to know more about them as people not as crazy women  who are struggling to make this new life work for them. So much time is spent on the natural surroundings, the setting of the story and not enough on the meat of these interesting people to whom Jackson has introduced us. Even the big reveal falls flat because it’s too obvious and there is no dept to the revelation. Nothing but anti-climatic words on a page, written just in case the reader hasn’t figured it out yet.

Maybe I need to read it again?! Have you read We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson? What’s your take on it? I’d love to read your thoughts in the comments.

Learn more about the Back to Classics 2016 Challenge.

1 thought on “Book Review: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson”

  1. Pingback: Back to the Classics Update | A Book to Read

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