26 October 2010

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

My thoughts about this book are rather scattered and what I have written below might sound more like notes for an essay, but I want to say something about it, so please excuse the rambling.

Genre: Psychological/gothic horror
Year of publication: 1962
Setting & time: New England, USA, mid-20th century

While I have labelled this a psychological/gothic horror novel, it is not entirely true, but this is a book that is hard to label. It is psychological and it is gothic, but a psychological and gothic What? It’s hardly a thriller because most of the action is internal (although there are some thrilling moments, especially during the climax), and it’s hardly a horror, although after a certain point in the story one is constantly expecting something of the kind, and it isn’t melodramatic enough to be called a sensational novel, although it draws on all of those genres. It is, in a way, a crime novel, and in fact I wouldn’t hesitate to put it on a list of some of the best of that kind I have read, but the crime is incidental to the main story – the main focus is on the interplay of personalities and human relationships. I suppose it could be called psycho-gothic suspense.

There is sense of deep unease and occasional creepiness underlying the narrative right from the beginning, and one wonders where it is all heading and what sort of climax it is leading up to.

What this story reminded me of most of all was The Wasp Factory by Iain M. Banks, possibly because the organic magic practised by the narrators of both is so similar and the same kind of unease suffuses both stories. But while I would unhesitatingly classify The Wasp Factory as horror, the horrors – if you can call them that – of We Have Always Lived in the Castle are internal rather than external and are mostly created by the interplay of what is written between the lines and the reader’s brain, rather than by what is actually printed on the page.

While some pretty horrible events do happen in the story, they are not of the kind that causes the pulse to race and they don’t affect the gag reflex or make one shudder, but rather play on other feelings, being able to cause anger and arouse frustrated sympathy, and also awakening profound unease and a sense of horrified wonder at the imagination that could create such a story.

The narrator is an 18 year old girl who lives in an isolated house with her half-demented uncle and her sister. We know from the start that there is something strange going on. While the narrator is an unreliable one and clearly disturbed in her mind, she seems incapable of telling a lie or even drawing conclusions – those are left to the reader, and they can get rather disturbing – and what she tells of is clearly a very dysfunctional family who are hated and feared by their neighbours. This seems to be a matter of class and money – the Blackwood family are rich and upper-class, while the villagers are poor (or at least not rich), and belong to the lower classes.

But there is more than that – the plight of the Blackwoods, their social isolation and fear of the villagers seems to be partially self-induced, and it hasn’t helped that a tragedy took place in the house several years before the story starts, which has caused open hatred and fear between the remaining three Blackwoods and the villagers. They nevertheless exist in a kind of sinister status quo that allows the narrator, Mary Katherine, to buy groceries and pick up library books in the village while most of the villagers hold their collective breaths and hope nothing bad will happen, or perhaps they are waiting for an excuse so they can finally get a proper outlet for their hatred.

As the beginning chapter that describes her last trip down to the village clearly shows, very little is needed to tip the precarious balance that both parties respect. When this finally happens, it is not because of something either the Blackwoods or the villagers do, but rather because of an outsider who arrives and belongs to neither camp, and the results are both disastrous and spectacular. Without saying too much, I think I can safely reveal that once the outsider is removed, a new and different balance is gained, but if you want to know how, you need to read the book.

The whole story is told by what is possibly the most brilliantly rendered unreliable narrator I have come across, in sharp, clear, and most of all very readable prose that lays the story down before the reader’s eyes and challenges her to interpret it and draw her own conclusions, because the narrator adamantly avoids doing so.

Rating: A delicately wrought, disturbing and absorbing book that may give you some very strange dreams. 5 stars.

2 comments:

George said...

Shirley Jackson is an underrated writer. I'm currently reading the just published LIBRARY OF AMERICA volume of her work. Her classic, "The Lottery," is both scary and disturbing.

Dorte H said...

I know I have had this one on my wish list once.

I have NO idea why I removed it, but I put it back on immediately after you review. I don´t know when, but I know I MUST read this one.