We Have Always Lived in the Castle is an amazing, unsettling book. It is a tale told by a fanciful and unreliable but fascinating narrator, Mary Katherine Blackwood, or Merricat, as her older sister Constance calls her. Merricat and Constance and their Uncle Julian and Merricat’s cat Jonas live in Blackwood House, on top of the hill overlooking a small and small-minded village.
The author Shirley Jackson was a master of the macabre and creepy. Her short story “The Lottery” continues to haunt schoolchildren every year, as does her masterly haunted house novel, The Haunting of Hill House. Jackson lived for many years in North Bennington, Vermont, and has ratcheted up the standoffish prototypical New Englander to the nth degree in this story. The Blackwoods experienced a family tragedy six years ago, when four of the family members died one night after sprinkling what they thought was sugar on their blackberries. It turned out to be arsenic. Constance was acquitted of the crime, but the cloud of doubt, distrust, and thinly-veiled hate has hung over her and her remaining family ever since.
The details of the Blackwoods’ existence and the genteel, class-conscious life that their family has led in contrast to their unneighborly neighbors plays out throughout the book. The devil is in the details – descriptions of china patterns and the meticulously kept remnants of their departed relatives – a hairbrush, a gold watch, a harp. Merricat admits her life is a difficult one, but she enjoys it – until a visit by distant cousin Charles threatens to destroy all the barriers she has carefully, and sometimes magically constructed to the outside world.
Merricat’s and Constance’s home and way of life are under siege. Can they hold onto any of their old, familiar graces? Can their neighbors treat others equally, without suspicion, and not resort to violence? We Have Always Lived in the Castle seems an especially pertinent and spooky read, as we sadly read more and more discussions of “otherness’ and persecution daily in our press.
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