Book Review – We Have Always Lived in the Castle

We Have Always Lived in the CastleWe Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)


“Today my winged horse is coming and I am carrying you off to the moon and on the moon we will eat rose petals.”


Well, this was a creepy little book.

I have read some Shirley Jackson in the past – in fact The Lottery and The Haunting of Hill House are some of my most favourite pieces of writing. I figured this would be off the charts as well, and I’d be writing a super-glowing review full of hyperbole and general hype and telling everyone they should run out immediately and get this book. But honestly? It’s okay. It’s pretty good. It’s not bad, but it’s not phenomenal or anything.

Honestly, the writing was very good. My issue here was the plot. What I love about The Lottery and The Haunting of Hill House are the surprises. The “big reveal” was so clumsily alluded to early on here, that by the time it was announced – and really, it wasn’t so much announced as mentioned as an aside – I was like yeah, whatever, knew that from the beginning. Let’s move on.

So, this story focuses on 18-year-old Merricat, who lives with her sister and her uncle in a big old house in the countryside.

“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.”

Indeed, the rest of the family died several years prior, with suspicion thrown at Merricat’s older sister. Now, the town is suspicious of them, most “friends” have abandoned them, people are cruel to them. I don’t really like any of these characters. I found them all a little strange and hard to relate to. Like Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the character I related to the most was the cat. Jonas. He was an interesting little dude.

“The trees around and overhead were so thick that it was always dry inside and on Sunday morning I lay there with Jonas, listening to his stories. All cat stories start with the statement: “My mother, who was the first cat, told me this,” and I lay with my head close to Jonas and listened. There was no change coming, I thought here, only spring; I was wrong to be so frightened. The days would get warmer, and Uncle Julian would sit in the sun, and Constance would laugh when she worked in the garden, and it would always be the same. Jonas went on and on (“And then we sang! And then we sang!”) and the leaves moved overhead and it would always be the same.”

Merricat is always burying things in the creepy woods around the house or nailing things to trees or whatnot, making up secret words in her head to ward off bad things. It reminds me of things I might have done when I was 9 or 10, so it seemed a little strange to me that it was so much of an 18-year-old girls life. She has some pretty weird rituals about life as well, and seems to me that she might have a bit of OCD, as obsessed as she is with everything in her life staying the same.

“All our land was enriched with my treasures buried in it, thickly inhabited just below the surface with my marbles and my teeth and my colored stones, all perhaps turned to jewels by now, held together under the ground in a powerful taut web which never loosened, but held fast to guard us.”

Of course, life doesn’t work that way – things change and we as people move on, and life propels us forward, which is what happens when a long-lost cousin comes to visit. Okay, it’s more like all hell breaks loose. There’s stealing and breakage and eventually an angry mob of townspeople because that’s always what happens, you know, when people are a little bit different. Actually? It kind of is what happens, I shouldn’t be sarcastic about that after everything that’s been going on geopolitically lately.

“… I never turned; it was enough to feel them all there without looking into their flat grey faces with hating eyes. I wish you were all dead, I thought, and longed to say it out loud. Constance said, “Never let them see that you care,” and “If you pay attention they’ll only get worse,” and probably it was true, but I wished they were dead. I would have liked to come into the grocery some morning and see them all, even the Elberts and the children, lying there crying with the pain of dying. I would help myself to groceries, I thought, stepping over their bodies, taking whatever I fancied from the shelves, and go home, with perhaps a kick for Mrs. Donell while she lay there. I was never sorry when I had thoughts like this; I only wished they would come true.”

So, while the plotting isn’t so exciting and the characters are borderline annoying, the writing is actually very pretty, and I did find myself interested to the end, because of that. And I still can’t get the little children’s chant out of my head, so that says something. If you are a Shirley Jackson fan, you might find yourself a little annoyed, but if you’re into books about two spinsters in a creepy house in the woods, you might like this one…

“Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?
Oh no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.
Merricat, said Connie, would you like to go to sleep?
Down in the boneyard ten feet deep!”

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