Posted by: Sally Ingraham | December 26, 2009

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

DSC00342by Shirley Jackson

This book wasn’t incredibly Christmas appropriate, but when I arrived at my parent’s house and saw it in the library books box, I knew I had to read it. There has been a great deal of buzz about the book recently, and a quick search though my Google Reader brought up reviews from Eva, Lu, Simon, Steph, and Thomas!

As a piece of writing this book was mesmerizing. It was a good example of how a writer can create a believable voice, a setting that pops off the page, and manipulate an atmosphere. I definitely enjoyed it at that level.

It sure was creepy though, and it was about some seriously disturbed people. Merricat, the narrator, introduces herself like this:

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.

Merricat proves to be an unreliable narrator, starting with that last sentence, since her Uncle Julian lives with them in the large Blackwood mansion. Constance never strays beyond the garden, and it is by following Merricat to the village for the weekly grocery run that you pick up more hints about her family, hear rumors of poison, and get a very large dose of unease.

At home, with the suspicious gossip of the villagers kept away by gates and padlocks, and the protection of Merricat’s buried talismans and magic words, life is pleasant. Constance cooks and cleans with gentle care and love. Uncle Julian rambles and muses and works on the book he is writing about the last night of the rest of the Blackwood family. Marricat plays in the woods and tells her sister stories of what their life on the moon will be like, should they ever manage to get there.

It is abundantly apparent that there is a great deal kept hidden, or at least at bay. Merricat, for all her eighteen years, is full of a brooding childishness. When the bizarre balance of her happy life is threatened by the arrival of Cousin Charles, and her choking hold on Constance’s life seems in danger of slipping, you quickly become aware of what frightening lengths she will go to in order to get what she wants.

Then there is the whole underlying question (minor spoilers ahead!) of how much of Merricat’s story can you believe? Is her entire world a fabrication? Did she actually die when she was in the orphanage and Constance was on trial for murder, as Uncle Julian hints? (Lu brought up a fascinating theory in her review that I am inclined to entertain too.)

Jackson’s skill lies in her ability to hold your attention, and weave the creepy factor of her story in so subtly that you aren’t immediately aware of the shivers running up and down your spine. While I found the book disturbing, I would say that I liked it based on the skillful handling alone. I reached the end, and had to let my breath out in a long “phewww!” of both relief (to have escaped from Merricat’s crazy world,) and amazement at what Jackson had crafted.


  1. So glad this book has another fan!

  2. Yes indeed, and since I seem to be one of the few people in the world who hasn’t read The Lottery, that’s definitely going on my list…!

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