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We Have Always Lived in the Castle - Shirley Jackson

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Genre: Fiction / Author: Shirley Jackson / Paperback / 176 Pages / Book is published 2009-10-01 by Penguin Classics

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      30.01.2010 00:19
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      A reprint of a compelling, macabre tale about an eccentric young woman and her family home

      Mary Katherine Blackwood, also known as Merricat, is eighteen, and lives with her older sister Constance in the family home where "Blackwoods had always lived". Merricat quickly draws the reader into her world by a series of matter of fact but bizarre statements - her likes include her sister and death cap mushrooms, and everyone else in her family is dead. The wealthy Blackwood family has always kept the house "steady against the world", shutting out other people, and they live near a village. Merricat believes that "The people of the village have always hated us", and tells us that she hates them too.

      We soon learn that most of Merricat's family were poisoned 6 years before - Merricat, Constance and their Uncle Julian survived, and Constance stood trial for murder and was acquitted but is popularly believed to have been guilty. Merricat is happy with their life as it is, "our slow, lovely days", but now this existence is threatened by the arrival of cousin Charles.

      I first read this novel about 20 years ago, but it was well worth a reread. Merricat is a very unreliable narrator, but the way she tells her macabre story is totally compelling. At 18, she is treated by everyone including her beloved sister as a child, and as the novel unfolds it is clear that she has not grown up and has no wish to become an adult. She has gone to great lengths to keep things as they are, and will continue to do so. I was totally drawn in by her voice and account of events, and only realised at the end the extent to which I had accepted some quite wicked actions which she tells us about. This is what I found really quite disturbing about the novel.

      This is a new Penguin Modern Classics edition of an American novel first published in 1962, with a short afterword by Joyce Carol Oates. I always like reading afterwords or introductions to novels by other authors, as I like to know what writers admire about others' work. This afterword points out a few things about the novel, highlighting points I might have missed and confirming some of my thoughts about others. It also tells us a bit about the author and her other work, and where this novel fits in. It is an interesting piece, and I like the fact that it is an afterword (and not an introduction) because it helps remind me not to read it before the novel, so the revelations in the story don't lose their impact because of spoilers. I also think that commentary on a novel often makes far more sense after reading.

      I would recommend this novel as a good read and quite thought provoking at the same time, and plan to look for other works by Shirley Jackson.

      After reading this, I would like to read more of Shirley Jackson's work. Joyce Carol Oates compares the novel to several other 20th century American classics about children and teenagers including The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird and The Bell Jar. Another novel about hanging on to a way of life inside a family home is The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters.

      This review was originally written for www.thebookbag.co.uk

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