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

Format: Paperback

Pages: 158 pages

Published: 1962

Publisher: Penguin Books

Genre: Classics, Fiction & Literature, Horror

Synopsis:

Living in the Blackwood family home with only her sister Constance and her Uncle Julian for company, Merricat just wants to preserve their delicate way of life. But ever since Constance was acquitted of murdering the rest of the family, the world isn’t leaving the Blackwoods alone. And when Cousin Charles arrives, armed with overtures of friendship and a desperate need to get into the safe, Merricat must do everything in her power to protect the remaining family.

In her final, greatest novel, Shirley Jackson draws us into a dark, unsettling world of family rivalries, suspense and exquisite black comedy. 


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We Have Always Lived in a Castle was Shirley Jackson’s last completed novel before she died in 1965. By most critics, this is considered to be her best book, and I have to say that I completely agree. This is the novel where Jackson’s talent for writing really shines. Her writing style has the unique talent of making readers think about the society around them and the psyche of the human mind. Jackson doesn’t need to creep you out by depicting blood and describing gruesome scenes. She instills fear by giving a psychological examination of the human conscience. We don’t really know what truly goes on in a person’s mind and with her books, Jackson really gives an in-depth look into that fascinating organ.

But do not let this book’s simplicity fool you. It might be short but the impact that it leaves is very astounding. Just with the first lines of the story leaves a chill down your spine:

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.”

And from there we enter the world of Uncle Julian, crippled by the poison, Constance, an agoraphobiac accused but acquitted of poisoning her family, and her sister Mary Katherine, nicknamed Merricat and the narrator of the story. All is well with the remaining members of the Blackwood. The rest of the community hates them, but the Blackwood family do everything in their power to keep themselves isolated. That is until, an unannounced arrival from a long-lost family member crashes their stability, which leads to events that causes surprising twists and disturbing results.

Merricat is unlike any character I have ever met and most likely Jackson’s most memorable character. She may be eighteen years old but I have to admit, they were times that I forgot about her age. The voice maybe childlike, but this bizarre storytelling that Merricat gives leaps off the page. She strives to hold onto the order and enclosed world that she has created for herself and those she holds most dear. One little crack that threatens to break that mold has serious implications, which makes her characteristics and personality such an interesting aspect to examine. Every moment you are spent inside her head, you find yourself harder and harder to pull yourself away. You are so enthralled by Merricat’s voice that you have hard time not agreeing with her, even her thoughts are disturbing. Her chilling words still haunt me when she was playing her game in the summer house:

Bow your heads to our beloved Mary Katherine…or you will be dead.”

This novel is a perfect portrayal of mental health. Both Merricat and Constance truly show the psychological impact of not only an isolated lifestyle but the dire consequences of what happens a fragile stability finally breaks. The fate of these tragic characters are left to the readers’ imagination but with the disturbing and creepy angle this story takes, I think readers rather they didn’t know. This masterpiece is a definite must for any Shirley Jackson fans out there. This examination of the human psyche will leave you rethinking every person you ever met. You don’t know what deep dark secrets person holds and this book makes you really want them to stay hidden. If you are still not convince to read this book, maybe the innocent sound last line can convince you:

Oh Constance, we are so happy.”

Overall Rating: 5 out of 5 stars.

Get It At: Amazon |Barnes & Noble|Book Depository| Your local library

2 thoughts on “Book Review: We Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

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