I don’t want to say anything at all about the plot of this book and give stuff away. I made the mistake of reading the back of my book when I was a short way into it. At the time, I thought it would help me clear up some confusion. It did, but it also deprived me of learning each detail step by step, which would have been way more fun. So I’ll keep my description here to a bare minimum: this is the story of two sisters, Constance and Mary Katherine, who have not left the Blackwood home in five months. It’s told from Mary’s point of view.
My first experience with Shirley Jackson was in 1999 with The Haunting of Hill House. I’d just seen The Haunting and wanted to read the book it was based on. I didn’t realize at the time that the book was 40 years old. I thought it was modern, and by modern standards, it seemed silly, clichéd, and predictable. I was looking at it through the wrong eyes, and it wasn’t until last year’s RIP season that I realized that. I resolved to read something else by Jackson now that a decade had passed and I knew a little more about what I was reading. The book I settled on was We Have Always Lived in the Castle.
Brilliant book. Oh I had so much fun reading it! Mary’s narrative is so precise and meticulous, just like she is. It doesn’t take long to figure out something is really, really wrong with that girl. She, and the Blackwoods in general, are just a tad bit messed up.
Now I admit, there were some things in this book that might be considered predictable or clichéd, but that’s just my modern brain talking. At the time of publishing, they probably weren’t, and even if they were, it hardly matters. The real brilliance of this book was not the plot but the tone. The atmosphere. The completely oppressive, creepy, aching, haunted feeling so pervasive through every page. It’s been a long time since I read a book that captured tone so well. Books like Rebecca or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, whose words just teem with life. That’s where We Have Always Lived in the Castle really shines.
Secondary to that is its characterization. I don’t want to talk about the climax, but for those who have read it, the amount of human life and hysteria that runs through the crux point, the collapsing of all barriers and boundaries, is just amazing. All of those college lessons on civilization and humanity falling into barbarism at the least provocation? Well, let’s just say I remembered them poignantly while reading.
I am very impressed with Shirley Jackson, and I need to go back and reread The Haunting of Hill House. I now look back at my 20-year-old self and wonder just how differently we’ll see things! Perhaps that will be one of next year’s RIP reads!