Also by this author: The Bird's Nest
Published by Penguin Classics on 1962
Read synopsis on Goodreads
Buy the book: Amazon/Audible (this post includes affiliate links)
Lately, I’ve been finding myself reading more books about the dark side of human nature and when I heard about We Have Always Lived in the Castle on the Books on the Nightstand podcast, I knew I would buy it. Rather than try to explain Shirley Jackson’s place in the literary world, I’ll quote the introduction of the book, instead:
While celebrated by reviewers throughout her career, she wasn’t welcomed into any canon or school; she’s been no major critic’s fetish. Sterling in her craft, Jackson is prized by the writers who read her, yet it would be self-congratulatory to claim her as a writer’s writer. Rather, Shirley Jackson has thrived, at publication and since, as a reader’s writer.
As for the book, I was smitten. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is the perfect book to curl up with on a cold and dreary day. Narrated by an 18-year old nicknamed Merricat, the book is about two sisters who live with their uncle in a large house on the edge of a small town. They cling to their routines, with each day given a different task, and their very existence relies on keeping things normal (groceries on Tuesday and Friday; checking the fence on Wednesdays; doctor visits on Saturdays). But things aren’t normal, because several years before Merricat’s sister, Constance, was charged and acquitted of murdering her family. In fact, the only remaining survivors of the ordeal are Merricat and their elderly Uncle Julian.
At first, I thought this was going to be a whodunnit story, but it is far from it. Instead, the book is about the sisters’ daily lives and nonchalant attitude about what happened. They go about their business as if your whole family being poisoned is commonplace. Cast out by the townsfolk, the sisters learned to cope by developing an almost a crazed obsession with keeping their routines. Constance never leaves the house and Merricat only ventures into town for groceries, enduring the stares and gossip. They are perfectly happy living their lives until a long-lost cousin named Charles shows up and wants to “help out.” But it’s clear from the beginning that there is something a bit off with Charles. He’s a little too interested in where their money is being spent and disapproves of their hermit tendencies. Not long after Charles’ arrival, the sisters’ contented lives are thrown into disarray with deadly consequences.
What I loved about this book is the authenticity of the characters. Merricat, at 18, is a child at heart. Whether this is because she’s mentally delayed or is a result of not having any responsibilities, I’m not sure, but I’m guessing the latter. She’s also OCD. Not only does Merricat bury and nail talismans around the property in order to protect the family, she treats each walk to the grocery store as a puzzle that needs to be completed in as few steps as possible. Constance, for her part, is the pinnacle of propriety: always polite and always willing to take in family. Charles, however, is just plain evil. He’s not evil in the crazed-murderer sense, but evil in that every single action he takes is calculated and self-serving. He is the very definition of a sociopath: charming, good looking, and selfish. Lastly, there’s Uncle Julian, who is slowly losing his memory and just wants to document the “last night” that everyone was alive.
This is a must-read book. Not only is Shirley Jackson a literary icon in her own right, but the book is fantastic. Let me repeat that. The book is fantastic. I also highly recommend reading the introduction. I don’t usually do this, but because I had never read a full-length Jackson novel I did. Knowing that Jackson was raised to value propriety above all else and was excluded from her own town after writing The Lottery adds a dimension to the book that only enhances its value. I hope you pick up a copy and love it as much as I did, and thanks Books on the Nightstand for the recommendation!
Oh, and there are rumors that this might be a movie. One can hope. If only Billy Zane were 20 years younger. He’d make the perfect Charles.