Tuesday, July 18, 2017

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Four family members are killed when arsenic is placed in the sugar bowl. Eldest daughter Constance is blamed, but did she do it?

Two sisters live in a large family house on the outskirts of a small town. Eighteen-year-old Mary Katherine "Merricat" Blackwood, who narrates the story, is the younger sister and Constance the older. They live alone on the isolated family estate with their Uncle Julian. Six years previously, a shocking crime happened in the house. The Blackwood parents, a younger brother and Uncle Julian's wife, Dorothy, were murdered. They were all poisoned with arsenic that had been put in the family's sugar bowl, meant to be sprinkled on their evening treat of fresh garden berries. Uncle Julian had tried a little of the sugar, but managed to survive. Constance never took sugar on her berries while Merricat had been sent to bed early as punishment.

Constance was accused of the multiple murder. She stood trial, but was acquitted. Despite this, the sisters have been despised and loathed by the people of the town. Children taunt Merricat, who is the only one to leave the house and enter town to do the shopping, with the cruel rhyme Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea / Oh no, said Merricat, you'll poison me. The sisters live almost as scapegoats, the townsfolk gleefully pinning every fear and prejudice onto them.

Despite the hostility of the outside world, the sisters, along with Uncle Julian, live with a degree of harmony among themselves. Constance tends her garden, with its wild plants and herbs, Merricat performs her own little rituals, nailing family heirlooms to trees, while Uncle Julian writes his memoirs. Into this safe little group enters cousin Charles. He is determined to get his hands on the family safe that he knows contains a fortune. During a fight with Charles, Merricat accidently starts a fire. The townsfolk then rush the house, throwing whatever they can at it. In the aftermath of the fire, a confession is made and we learn who committed the murder. Yet even this disclosure of the murderer leaves much moral ambiguity: the motivation for the strange events at Blackwood house are never really revealed.

Shirley Jackson's last novel, published in 1962, is a relentlessly strange tale of Gothic suspense. It's reminiscent of schoolyard stories of witches' houses on the edge of town, boarded up old properties that invite perverse childhood speculation. The story brilliantly evokes the prejudices that communities can use to torment outsiders. Jackson relishes depicting parochial, petty, small-minded thinking, exhibiting a delicious misanthropy that almost equals that of her contemporary and fellow American, Patricia Highsmith. This is a novel that in a subtle way celebrates outsiders and rebels who don't fit in.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a true original, its cast of oddball characters truly believable and  with an uncanny plot that is genuinely scary. Its rising sense of foreboding is almost unbearable, but as Oscar Wilde once wrote, "The suspense is terrible. I do hope it will last."

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson. Published by Penguin. ISBN: 9780141191454 RRP: $19.99