18 December 2013

Book Club: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

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Mary Katherine Blackwood, known as Merricat, lives an isolated life in her family home (note: it's not actually a castle!) alongside her older sister Constance and elderly Uncle Julian who is confined to a wheelchair. Constance was previously acquitted of murdering the rest of the Blackwood family by poisoning them with arsenic but the community continues to eye the three remaining Blackwoods with suspicion, effectively ostracising them. Nevertheless, the three of them trundle along fairly happily until long-lost Cousin Charles appears and upsets the balance of their lives, prompting Merricat to take action in an attempt to protect her family; action which has life-changing consequences for the Blackwoods and the hostile townspeople.

I initially found We Have Always Lived in the Castle a little slow to start with and was worried I'd be left disappointed. The book is quite short, weighing in at around 150 pages and I wasn't sure it would be able to draw me in properly. I'm so glad I persevered though, as in the end I was completely captivated by the Blackwoods and wild, impulsive Merricat, who will stop and nothing to get Cousin Charles away from her beloved sister.

I actually think the book's brevity is a real bonus; it allows you to devour it in one sitting if you want and if possible I would recommend doing so; in any case, the action is buoyed along so well that you probably won't be able to help yourself once it gets going.

Although not overtly scary, Jackson's writing has an eerie, menacing quality to it and as the book edges toward its climactic middle section, as well as the huge reveal (although to me it was fairly obvious what it would be, the unveiling of the truth is still expertly done, just dropped into the story so you have to go back and read it twice) the writing picks up its pace and energy, urging you along with the action before returning to its original slower pace as the dust settles in the aftermath of Merricat's plan..
Merricat is also great as an unreliable narrator, and the slowly revealed back story of the Blackwood family really helps to pique interest in the story, compelling you to read on in the hopes of unraveling the mystery for yourself.

I would definitely recommend We Have Always Lived in the Castle if you like stories full of suspense and mystery. It's extremely well-written and Jackson is adept at pacing the story and drawing you into the world of the Blackwoods, creating characters who you really feel like you know even after fewer than 200 pages. It seems like a particularly fitting book for the darker nights to read while warm in front of the fire with a cup of tea- just be wary of the sugar...

Have you read We Have Always Lived in the Castle or any other Shirley Jackson novels? What would you recommend for winter evening reading?

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