Lizzie's Reviews > We Have Always Lived in the Castle

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
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Nov 14, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: borrowed, emmy-s, 2012, favorites, fantasy-or-something, best-covers
Read from March 29 to April 06, 2012

Wow. So many 5-star books recently! I read three things in all of 2011 that I liked that much. This is great!

I'm going to be leaning on our friendly "spoiler" tag a lot in this one and we'll see how that works out.

I bought this book as a gift for my sister last year, and as soon as she finished it she had me borrow it. I'd never heard of it, ever, but I saw it in the list of these fabulous Penguin editions (of which I'd like to own every book), and when I looked it up on Goodreads, essentially the majority of first page reviews is people saying "This is my favorite book of all time." And I was like… it is?

Well it is, it's extraordinary. My sister said it is her favorite thing she's ever read, and that she wanted to reread it immediately after finishing. I can see getting so wrapped up that you can't stop. It's so short, and so self-contained, and everything means everything, every word chosen and every detail that is rushed right along. It's there from the very first page, and I almost felt like I needed to just take a whole night and stay in my room and read it without interruption instead of be a person. Engrossing is not even the word, and I'm somewhat flummoxed to explain why.

I see that some people tag this in the "horror" genre, which is kind of interesting and kind of justifiable. I think that term does helpfully get across the atmosphere it has of, this is real? technically? and plausible, in a way? And it isn't supernatural, nothing fantastical about it (despite that Merricat seems to believe a bit in magic). But it isn't… right. It isn't regular. There's something simply wrong here.

It is incredibly literary and a pleasure to read. Jackson's writing is beautifully weird, evocative of deep symbolism, and the forced perspective through the strange lens of Merricat so effective. The book is written on the borderline of so many things. Mary Katherine is not an unreliable narrator, not really. She doesn't say everything she knows, and yet sorta does. I think what is so spooky and spellbinding here is that as the action of the book is unfolding, you are unfolding Merricat's life of precision. She and Constance live in a beyond-structured routine, in beyond-repressed denial that anything is bad, and still do so in a way that acknowledges everything. They simply like things this way, and take care of each other. In another story these people might do these same things, but it would be misery, an ominous threat to each other, but what is amazing to read here is that it's a story of happiness and love. Every time the sisters Merricat and Constance said "I love you," I just… I just. I loved them. They are truly good to one another, and this is truly the most important thing to each of them. (view spoiler)

The author reveals so much with so little kaboom. I can almost not think of any stronger first-person writing I've read, ever. Sometimes what Merricat thinks or does is SUCH A BIG DEAL, but you could almost miss that she said anything out of the ordinary. Which is of course the most disturbing thing of all. Then you rewind yourself a moment, and connect twenty dots in your head to understand what she means. Following her through her many, many superstitious rituals. "Long thin things would remind me to be kinder to Uncle Julian." "Thursday was my most powerful day." Or understand that to her, it doesn't mean anything at all. Random decisions to break things. Talking with her cat. Almost feeling like the cat is talking back.

There is something like a twist in this book, a reveal during the denouement. It is not surprising — I'd wondered about it all along — but still, it somehow changes everything to have it on the page. I resisted it? I didn't want it to change what I thought! But the author is making me think outside the narrative box, and to feel reluctant to do so. All the power is redistributed, and yet it isn't — things are just as you've perceived they are, but it is all different knowing who has decided the roles they all play, and the rigidity of their lives. (view spoiler) I am sometimes a naive reader, but I think that this was a genuinely rich turn to give. This book is dense like a diamond.

The Bad Thing that happened to this family occurred when Mary Katherine was twelve, which means that the majority of her growing up has been done while they're living these lives that we see. She's developed such odd beliefs, and fervent protectiveness for their home, but this is just who she has been. Constance, who is much older, sometimes seems to see outside it all. She is too afraid to leave, or to cope with people, but as the novel starts, she is beginning to acknowledge that unnaturalness. (view spoiler) She is so warm (where Merricat is so cold) that you can see that if she began to move, if she began to thaw, it would quickly change everything. The balance is so delicate, and Merricat requires its stability so passionately. (view spoiler) Who is "right" about it is never 100% officially decided.

At the end, you are just left with disbelief. Looking at what they are left with, and accepting of and adapting to and happy with, you can only wonder where this family even started from. Because at the beginning of the book, their normal life (what normal life is supposed to be) has already clearly been thrown off for years, and they have adapted. Everyone tries to claim that before then, things were good, but there's just as much anecdotal evidence that they were not. How much, is the only question.

You know something? I've never even read "The Lottery." How the heck is that possible.

Also I don't agree with everything Jonathan Lethem says but that's just how introductions go, isn't it. And Thomas Ott's comic work looks F-ING CREEPY and that is perfect, though I am uneager to read it. A perfect cover for this book, though. One I was a little afraid to leave out on the nightstand.
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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Lizzie Aahh yay! I want everyone to read it!

I still can't really comprehend that it was basically an accident that I even heard of it? Like, what else am I missing out there? A whooole lot. (And I still gotta read "The Lottery" someday.)

My sister and I totally have to figure out how to go as Constance and Merricat for Halloween.

Lizzie Yes, my little sister and I did "dress" as Constance and Merricat on Halloween.

Or, close enough.

2013-10-31 09.17.45
"Merricat," said Connie, "Would you like a cup of tea?"

2013-10-31 10.23.44
"Oh no," said Merricat, "You'll poison me!"

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