[Review] We Have Always Lived in the Castle - Shirley Jackson

Title of Book:
We Have Always Lived in the Castle
Author: Shirley Jackson
Publisher: Penguin
Publication Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Paperback
Pages: 162

Merricat Blackwood lives on the family estate with her sister Constance and her uncle Julian. Not long ago there were seven Blackwoods - until a fatal dose of arsenic found its way into the sugar bowl one terrible night. Acquitted of the murders, Constance has returned home, where Merricat protects her from the curiosity and hostility of the villagers. Their days pass in happy isolation until cousin Charles appears. Only Merricat can see the danger, and she must act swiftly to keep Constance from his grasp.


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We Have Always Lived in the Castle opens with an introduction from Mary Katherine ‘Merricat’ Blackwood, who is the narrator of this book. She lives with her sister Constance, her Uncle Julian, and her cat Jonas in a secluded big house located on the outskirts of a village. In the beginning of this book, we follow Mary as she does her errand in the village. Every Friday and Tuesday Mary would go to the village to do some grocery shopping and borrow some books from the library. From this outing we’ll learn that the villagers disdain the Blackwood family. They would taunt and intimidate Mary even though what she wanted was to live peacefully with her sister.

As we progress through the book, we learn that six years ago, a tragedy happened in the family. The family was poisoned leaving only Mary, her sister Constance, and her uncle Julian; although uncle Julian wasn’t left unscathed. He consumed a small amount of the poison causing him to use wheelchair for the rest of his life. Despite the fact that Constance was acquitted for the crime, the villagers still believe that she’s responsible for it. It isn’t clearly explained why the villagers detest the Blackwood in the first place but the poisoning fuels more hatred towards the Blackwood family. The truth behind the poisoning isn’t actually revealed, yet there’s a subtle hint that maybe our narrator knew something about it.
“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 my family is dead.”
This book is one of the books which opening paragraph immediately sets the tone of the book. It opens with Mary introducing herself. From this we could sense that there's something different with her. From her narration I get the impression that she’s a disturbed person. She doesn’t do well with changes which clearly apparent in this book. There’s not much going on in this book. In fact, this book mostly tells the daily lives of the Blackwood family. They have a certain day reserved for cleaning and two days in a week for grocery shopping and going to the library. Even living as a recluse, once a week a friend of the family would visit for an afternoon tea; the same person on the same day. So when their cousin Charles showed up unexpectedly creating a ripple in their constant day to day life, Mary reacted negatively to his arrival. This would trigger an event which created a domino effect resulting in the remaining Blackwood family members living in an even more isolated life.

Mary has a weird fascination with charms for protection. She buried things around the house and nailed stuff on the tree to ward off bad people. She often imagined herself living on the moon with her cat. It’s like she’s living in her own head. She’s so na├»ve for her age. This behavior is enabled by her sister Constance, which was pointed out by their cousin. The more reason for Mary to hate him. The strain between these family members is what makes this book increasingly compelling for me.

For a relatively short book, We Have Always Lived in the Castle packs quite a punch. This book creates the kind of horror that creeps on you. There’s no ghost or monster in this book. It uses tension between the characters to scare the readers. It appears calm and quiet, yet I felt like I was sitting on the edge of my seat when I was reading this book. I can see why people love this book. If you want to try reading gothic horror/ mystery but get easily scared, you might want to try reading this book. It also has been adapted into a movie in 2018 with Alexandra Daddario as Constance and Taissa Farmiga as Mary if you’re interested to watch it instead. All in all, I enjoyed reading this book, I highly recommend it to read.

“I would not touch the ring; the thought of a ring around my finger always made me feel tight, because rings had no openings to get out of, but I liked the watch chain, which twisted and wound around my hand when I picked it up.”


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