We Have Always Lived in the Castle
Penguin Modern Classics
I read quite a lot nowadays and have developed a sort of sixth sense for whether I’m going to enjoy a book or not. This novel grabbed me in the first paragraph:
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 had 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 our family is dead.
I knew immediately that it was something I had to read, and downloaded it straight onto my phone, because I couldn’t wait until the shops opened!
The story is told from the point of view of Mary Katherine Blackwood, also known as Merricat, who lives with her older sister, Constance, her Uncle Julian and a cat, Jonas. The rest of Merricat’s family died from arsenic poisoning, for which Constance was blamed, but later acquitted. However, the taint lingers in the minds of the community and Merricat is the only member of the family who ever leaves the confines of the family estate; running the gauntlet of local children, who taunt her with rhymes, and grown-ups who bully her.
The novel is wonderfully claustrophobic and creepy, and Merricat obviously has ‘issues’; she is paranoid, obsessed with routine, possessive of her sister and has developed her own instinctive form of witchcraft, reliant on talismans, protective charms and magic words. In spite of this, I adored her and found myself on her side, although I knew she was probably an ‘unreliable narrator’ and couldn’t be trusted at her word.
The power of Jackson’s writing meant that I found parts of the story so uncomfortable, that being smothered in honey and staked out on an ant hill would have been a pleasure in comparison. I actually found myself hoping Merricat would kill her cousin, Charles, because I hated him so much!
Unlike Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, which delivered all I hoped for on the grotesque character front, but disappointed overall, this book surpassed my expectations. It made me think of some of my other favourite novels, The Grass Harp by Truman Capote and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird; reminding me of the way that Boo Radley became the ‘bogeyman’ for the town’s children. Imagine the tables turned – in We Have Always Lived in the Castle we get the story from the point of view of the demonized outsider and find out what it’s like to eavesdrop on these scare stories and mythologies as they’re being formulated.
I read this for pleasure, but learned a great deal about writing from Shirley Jackson, and intend to read it again with a notebook to hand next time.
On a completely different subject. As a total Luddite, I have resisted the Kindle so far, and this is the first book I’ve ever read on my mobile phone. I often read in bed and wake up with the book on my face, so I tend not to read on my tablet for fear of a broken nose. I’ll always love books, quite probably to the point of fetishism. However, I’ve found that I can read much faster on a screen. So, if you approach literature as a kind of reading marathon, take note.