We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I genuinely fell in love with this book. I couldn’t put it down. A somewhat short read, but really packed a punch. It was somewhat unsettling the whole way through. When I started this book I had assumed there would be a sort of “who-dun-it” element to the story, but that was not the case. I enjoyed it more because of that fact. There was no great mystery to the story. Instead, we are seeing the world through the eyes of the main character, which seems dark and twisted but it’s hard to tell if that’s the world, or simply how she sees it. Dark and unsettling and I enjoyed every word.
Full Review with Spoilers
I completely admit I often shy away from shorter books because I feel I don’t get enough substance. This is a view I am finding to be very narrow minded now.
I absolutely loved this book. The entire thing was very unsettling and eerie. The story is told though main character, Mary Katherine, or Merricat’s perspective. She is a young woman with a dark mind. The story opens with her having to go into town and it being an awful experience. Everyone in town despises her and her family, or what’s left of it. Her older sister Constance was charge with the murder of nearly all the rest of the family six years prior. Only Constance, Merricat and dear Uncle Julian remain. Uncle Julian, however, survived the arsenic poisoning that took the rest of the family and suffers from a very unstable mind and body because of it. Merricat, being the troublemaker she is, was sent to bed without supper, thus avoiding the incident all together. Since Constance was the cook of the family, she is charged for the murders, but miraculously is not convicted. Now, the Blackwood home is seen as a stain on the town, no one goes near it or the surviving Blackwood family members if it can be helped.
There are a few members of the community that take it upon themselves to “save” the family by visiting and and trying to get them to reintegrate into society. These secondary characters are used mostly as a plot device to present exposition to us early in the story. It’s handled very well and doesn’t feel like an overload of information. It feels organic and grows naturally.
Through the story we see how truly awful Merricat sees the world and everyone in it, constantly wishing them all dead and living in a sort of fantasy world of just her and Constance. Plus Uncle Julian of course. She has odd and disturbing quirks, like burying things in the yard or nailing them to trees as charms to protect them from the world beyond their property.
Merricat does not handle the arrival of a cousin suddenly out of the blue who forces his way in and basically becoming the head of the household all these years later. Merricat becomes more twisted, but it’s handled in such a way that doesn’t shift the story too harshly. The subtle turmoil under the surface continues the whole way through.
At it’s core, this book is a story of obsession. Merricat comes off obsessed with Constance and the now perfect life they have with just them. If it wasn’t obvious, Merricat was the one that poisoned the rest of the family, slipping arsenic in the sugar bowl knowing Constance never uses sugar on her own food. I felt like I knew this pretty early, not because it was obvious but because the character was so well written it’s just what I expected her to do.
I was enthralled the whole way. Merricat is such an interesting character. It was exciting and yes a bit scary to see the world as she does, knowing she would do whatever it took, including nearly burning down their house, to keep Constance to herself. Constance herself was even very interesting. While we don’t get insight into her beyond what Merricat sees, that alone gives us enough information about her to fill in the blanks ourselves. Uncle Julian does die roughly three fourths of the way through, but the glimpse we get into him and the fact the Merricat seems so unapologetic about his circumstance really makes us feel for him.
Overall a fantastic read and has a lot to unpack. I can’t recommend this one enough.