I love the cover of We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson and the book itself is weirdly wonderful.
It’s only a short book, but there is so much packed inside its 146 pages and it’s definitely a book I’m going to re-read. The book’s narrator is Mary Katherine Blackwood, but I prefer her nickname of Merricat. She is anything but merry and as the book opens she is eighteen, living with her sister Constance and everyone else in her family is dead.
How they died is explored in the rest of the book. Merricat is an obsessive-compulsive, both she and Constance have rituals that they have to perform in an attempt to control their fears. They have set routines for cleaning the house, always putting things back in exactly the same places, never a fraction of an inch out of place. Merricat thinks she could have been born a werewolf, as the two middle fingers on both her hands are the same length and as she says in the opening paragraph she dislikes:
… washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantegenet, and Amantia phalloides, the death-cap mushroom.
The Blackwood family is feared and hated by the villagers and one of the major themes of the novel is persecution. They live in a grand house, away from the village, behind locked gates. Constance is hypersensitive and afraid, unable to leave the house, bringing in another major theme – agoraphobia. Then there is frail and feeble Uncle Julian, now wheelchair-bound engrossed in their family history, trying to make sense of what happened to them.
Just what did happen is only gradually revealed and Merricat is a most unreliable narrator. She is a disturbing and disturbed character. She makes trips into the village for shopping and library books, plagued by her fears of the children, that they might come near her, afraid they might touch her, that their:
mothers would come at me like a flock of taloned hawks; that was always the picture I had in my mind – birds descending, striking, gashing with razor claws.
She makes magical tours of the woods surrounding their house, checking where she has buried her treasures, a doll, a box of silver dollars and blue marbles which she imagines turn to jewels that are held together in a “powerful taut web” to protect them. These, together with a book nailed to a tree in the woods, are safeguards and as long as they are still intact Merricat believes that nothing can harm her and her family.
When Cousin Charles arrives, apparently looking for the Blackwood family fortune, Merricat’s world begins to disintegrate and terror takes hold. This terror is palpable as the outside world threatens to break into their lives.
I enjoyed this macabre tale, for its portrayal of fear, resentment, hostility and persecution of its disturbed and damaged characters.