We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

wehavealwayslivedFiction — print. Buccaneer Books, 1990. Originally published 1962. 214 pgs. Library copy.

A trip to the grocery store and the library in the village near her home causes eighteen-year-old Mary Katherine Blackwood, also known as Merricat, such anxiety that she has to follow a strict routine visiting the grocer, the library, and Stella’s for a cup of coffee before she starts home only on Fridays and Tuesdays.

Pride prevents Mary Katherine from skipping her stop at Stella’s, although the stop is unnecessary, and pride prevents her from running home when one of the residents begins to quiz her on her sister, Constance, suggesting the siblings and their frail Uncle Julian should pack up and leave the Blackwood family home.

The reason? Constance Blackwood was suspected and, later, acquitted of poisoning her parents, younger brother, aunt, and Uncle Julian by putting arsenic in the sugar bowl. Mary Katherine survived because she was sent to her room without supper; Constance survived because she eats neither berries nor sugar. Yet suspicion casts a long shadow over the family, and few in town are willing to visit the home and associate with the young women. The arrival of their cousin, Charles, unsettles both the sisters and the village, and Merricat is determined to protect her sister at all costs.

I would not have expected a crime novel to have such a dreamy feeling to it. Creepy, yes, but the tone taken in this novel places in a rather odd position between crime novel and psychological thriller. On the very first page, Mary Katherine introduces herself, informs the reader that she is a fan of Amanita phalloides (the death-cap mushroom), and states in a matter of fact manner that everyone else in her family beside her sister is dead. She appears to be cold, distant coping with this loss and the marginalization of her family by created a new, more structured order.

Yet there is something innocent about her presentation of the villagers and her attachment to her cat, Jonas; something introspective and whimsical about the way she views her life and hammers expensive family heirlooms to trees. It is easy to fall right in line with Mary Katherine’s psychosis, and I found myself loathing the villagers who attempted to visit her home and reviling the simple beauties and joys of her reclusive life.

And then, of course, the ending — I will refrain from spoilers but I will state that I felt so unsettled by this novel that it took me some time to dive into another one. Jackson touches on humanity — the way people cope with loss, the ability of a mob to form despite evidence to the country — that I was loathe to pick up another novel and, inevitably and unfairly, compare the two authors.

Note: The cover at right is of the Penguin Modern Classics edition. My copy, which I borrowed from the public library, had a rather drab solid red cover without lettering.

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