My book club was looking for something short (because we were all feeling lazy), and we somehow came up with We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962) by Shirley Jackson. I was informed that I must know Jackson from the short story The Lottery, which I must have read in high school. They didn’t believe me when I said I hadn’t read it. And when I actually read The Lottery, I was still sure I hadn’t read it in high school. The Lottery is a very disturbing short story where the village commits a heinous crime in the name of tradition. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is very different, but it has a similarly threatening atmosphere in another small town. (Spoilers ahead because I’m not sure how to review it without them and it’s a pretty old book.)
The book begins with Merricat Blackwood, eighteen years old, heading off to town for what she doesn’t know will be the last time. She usually goes down once or twice a week to gather food supplies and library books, but she hates it. The townspeople sit and stare at her, sometimes making rude comments. She has to plan what side of the road to walk down in order to get through the ordeal. When she gets home, her older sister Constance makes her and her sickly Uncle Julian dinner. Constance treats Merrikat in an odd manner–like she is younger than her eighteen years. They live a very isolated, very quiet life.
As the book continues, the reader begins to get hints of their past. Until the “incident,” they used to be a large family, with parents, Julian’s wife, and a younger brother. There are also hints of dysfunction. Merrikat smashes a dish on the floor when Constance doesn’t pay her enough attention. However, things change when their cousin comes to visit. At first, I hoped that the cousin could bring some normalcy to their lives–especially for Constance who is so desperately isolated. In fact, Constance and the cousin seem to get along well, and it looks like the beginning of a courtship.
But the cousin eventually shows his true colors. He is cruel and looking for money. Merrikat responds badly to him and ends up setting his upstairs room on fire. The town comes to help put out the fire, and all of their pent up rage at this family comes out in a violent rampaging of the house as the girls hide. Uncle Julian dies in the fire, and the girls are left on their own with just a portion of the home that still has a roof. The townspeople feel badly for their violent explosion and drop food off at the house for them. At some point in all of this Constance and Merrikat face the truth that Merrikat was angry with her family and killed them by putting arsenic in the sugar bowl. Merrikat liked Constance and knew she didn’t like sugar, so Constance was saved. But Constance had an idea of what happened and washed the sugar bowl before the authorities arrived. This made her look guilty, and she was put on trial for the murder of her family but found innocent.
This was a pretty disturbing story with a number of layers. You begin the book on Merrikat’s side, annoyed that the townspeople are treating her so badly. But as you slowly see their life at the house and learn about their past you see that something is very wrong. Merrikat is unhinged and a murderer. Constance knows how to handle her, but she can obviously be dangerous to others. At the same time, there is something childlike and innocent about Merrikat. We debated in book club whether Merrikat had been mistreated, which led to the murders, or if she had just felt slighted. The book was not clear. On the other hand, the cruelty of the town when they get riled up is probably the most disturbing scene in the book. They are angry, but for all the wrong reasons and their actions do nothing but make the situation worse.
This book was well written, original, and disturbing. It definitely kept my interest as I tried to figure out their past and worried about their future.
You can find all of my reviews on my blog.