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

Mary Katherine Blackwood, nicknamed “Merricat” by those who love her, hates going into town. She’s convinced everyone is against her and all she really wants is to go back to her cozy life with her sister Constance and her uncle Julian. No one in town likes her, but she still has to buy the supplies twice a week and exchange library books for new ones. The townspeople have reason to be suspicious, though; the entire rest of the Blackwood family was killed by arsenic in the sugar, and Constance was accused, though later acquitted, of the crime. Merricat herself is a very peculiar girl, who is convinced that by nailing books to trees and burying various items of treasure she can keep Constance safe. Her methods don’t succeed when a cousin, Charles, comes to visit, and proceeds to shake up her careful existence.

I originally intended to read this for Carl’s RIP challenge last fall; I didn’t get to it then but I was in the mood for a creepy book over the holidays so I picked this up anyway. It isn’t a horror novel at all, which is what I expected, but more of a psychological story, focusing for me on the innate peculiarity that is Merricat herself. It’s very eerie – Merricat’s first scene in the town has a masterful atmosphere, especially with her dark thoughts towards all of the townspeople – but it isn’t particularly scary, which I’ll admit was something of a let down. Still, it has plenty of merit, and I did like it.

What was most interesting for me was the peek inside Merricat’s obviously very disturbed mind. At times I felt sorry for her sister, Constance; when Charles arrived I could almost feel her straining for a more normal life. He had the potential for that, and undoubtedly she would have enjoyed meeting a man, falling in love, cooking for her children. But she at the same time has a lot of affection for her disturbed little sister; she sees that things aren’t right, but she seems to have no idea how to fix them, or even the will to do so. After a time she sees her folly in leaning on Charles, who Merricat decided was a demon straightaway, and when she and Merricat begin to construct their own life together, she seems content to stay in her kitchen and keep with the status quo.

Indeed, by the end of the novel, the sisters have become a creepy legend, a pair of spirits that the villagers leave offerings to in forgiveness for their sins. It’s a very peculiar, creepy, atmospheric little novel. Some of the scenes towards the end are so evocatively described that I could see them in my head, which is a rare occurrence for me, and I think I’ll be rereading We Have Always Lived in the Castle with the right set of expectations this time, just to see what I get out of it. Maybe for next fall’s RIP challenge!

I am an Amazon Associate. I purchased this book.

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