Book Review: We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Shirley Jackson).
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson is a novel, that has been on my reading list for a couple of years. The story focuses on two sisters Mary Katherine Blackwood known as Merricat and her older sister Constance.
The book is a mystery thriller that has a gothic feel to it. The narrator of the story is Merricat, who is 18 years old. She lived with her elder sister, Constance, and her Uncle Julian, isolated from the town. Blackwoods are one of the wealthiest and oldest families in the area. In the beginning, it is simply dropped that the sisters’ family died of arsenic poisoning six years ago. Constance was arrested and put on trial but acquitted. Uncle Julian is the only survivor of that poisoning which has affected his health.
Constance runs the whole household. She cleans, cooks, and takes care of Merricat and Uncle Julian. After her family’s murder and her trial, Constance is scared to leave the house. She has isolated herself in the house and doesn’t go beyond the garden area. It is Merricat’s job to go into town and get everything they need. The villagers bother Merricat or give her a wide berth while some taunt her. The people feel that justice has been evaded and many believe Constance to be guilty yet she is free. Their routine life changes the day Charles Blackwood, their cousin comes to stay with them and gets close to Constance.
Merricat isn’t a reliable narrator. She comes off quirky from the start but she has a cold-blooded and violent streak. In the first couple of pages itself; it is casually mentioned that their family died of poisoning. She seems to hide something and is almost indifferent at times. I thought it was Constance who has set all the rules they live by but slowly, you realize it is actually Merricat. Throughout the story, details about the night of the poisoning are revealed but a complete picture is never disclosed. The one person Merricat loves is Constance. Her actions are often born out of this love for her sister even though they aren’t rational. She practices her own type of witchcraft, burying objects all around their land for protection.
Merricat enjoys the life they have and feels threatened when Charles’s arrival starts to change things. It gets clear pretty quickly that Charles has an ulterior motive. He tries to befriend Merricat after his arrival but gives up soon. His focus is on Constance. He implies that he would marry her. Merricat does everything possible to get rid of him. He takes on the role of the authority figure in the house and tries to bring the outside world to the house. He is often compared to Merricat and Constance’s dad, with his greed for money and social status. Also, the way he behaves with the sisters. He is the example of typical patriarchal behavior that the sisters had to endure with their family.
In Merricat’s bid to get rid of Charles, she starts a fire that destroys the house. The same night villagers harass the sisters when they try to flee to the woods, especially Constance and storm the house taking whatever they want. In the end, Constance and Merricat are living in complete isolation but are content with just each other as company. Charles comes back and tries to get Constance to open the door for him but she refuses.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle is paced well. It keeps you engaged. Merricat being the narrator, a sociopathic teenager, adds so much weight to the story. The setting, the characters, and the themes all blend perfectly. It is an interesting read.
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