Monday, October 31, 2011

Mary Katherine Blackwood in her castle

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson

One of my favorite books growing up was Shirley Jackson's Life Among the Savages.  It is the story of her family's life after they moved from New York City to a small town in Vermont.
"Our house is old, and noisy, and full.  When we moved into it we had two children and five thousand books; I expect that when we finally overflow and move out again we will have perhaps twenty children and easily half a million books; we also own assorted beds and tables and chairs and rocking horses and lamps and doll dresses and ship models and paint brushes and literally thousands of socks.  This is the way of life my husband and I have fallen into, inadvertently, as though we had fallen into a well and decided that since there was no way out we might as well stay there and set up a chair and a desk and a light of some kind."
Without ever falling into sentimentality, Jackson writes with warmth and humor about her husband and her children, the travails of keeping a house and making a home, their neighbors and the small-town life.  Everyone in my family must have read this book, since we've all been known to call someone a "bad bad webbis."  But at some point I made off with my parents' copy, which has my name and our telephone number from almost 40 years ago written inside (in blue crayon, in what looks like my handwriting, as long as I'm confessing).

Which is all to say that when I think of Shirley Jackson, it's always Life Among the Savages that comes to mind first.  Of course I've read her masterpiece "The Lottery," which takes the same New England small-town setting and then twists it into something shocking.  Over the years I've also collected two of her short novels, The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, but never got around to reading them. I just read Life again, or its sequel, Raising Demons.

I recently read an intriguing review of We Have Always Lived in the Castle that reminded me of my TBR copy (I wish I could remember where I read it!).  I was at a loose end yesterday afternoon, so I sat down with it and ended up reading it straight through (my copy is a Penguin edition of  214 pages, but with lots of blank spaces between chapters).  I didn't know anything about the story going in, but I was expecting something more along the lines of "The Lottery" than Life.  The first page confirmed that:
"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 Aminta phalloides, the death-cap mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead."
Mary Katherine, or Merricat for short, is a most unusual narrator.  I can't say much about her or the plot without giving too much away.  It is the story of a family, and of a town, a community.  It reminded me in some ways of Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle - a mirror-image, opposite version, including the narrator - and I wondered if the echo in the title was just coincidence.  I also wondered about the main event in the family's life, which happened before the story opens but that still shapes their lives.  Though frequently discussed, it is never explained, and the discussions with their conflicting versions just add to mystery and to the tension at the heart of the story.

I'm so glad that I finally read this.  And it is a perfect story for this time of year, with ghost stories in the air, with darkness falling early and the season closing in.


  1. I enjoyed this book too and yes, it was a perfect read for this time of year. It's the first Shirley Jackson book I've read, though I do have a copy of The Haunting of Hill House.

  2. You just convinced me to add Life Among the Savages to my wish list. I finished We Have Always Lived in the Castle last Halloween...during a power outage. Very creepy!

  3. Helen, I hope you've read The Lottery?

    JoAnn, I don't know if I'd have been brave enough to keep reading under those conditions :) I hope you'll get to read Life Among the Savages before too long!

  4. I read this last year and loved it, but I haven't been able to get on with any of Jackson's other work. The Haunting of Hill House is so dated to me, hopelessly so.

  5. I tried The Haunting one day and didn't get too far with it - but it was one of those days where I couldn't settle down to a book, so I'm going to try it again, in case it was just me!

  6. Coming very late to this, as I've just read Raising Demons - which I love almost as much as I love Life Among the Savages. I know I'll re-read them many times throughout my life.

    But isn't this one different? So odd that these could come from the same pen. I do like your comparison with I Capture the Castle - it is a bit like a very dark take on that, isn't it?

  7. Thanks for stopping by, Simon. I'm always glad to hear from another fan of Life Among the Savages. I only discovered Raising Demons a few years ago, and I love it too, but it's not as familiar yet as Life - like you I'll be reading both for years to come.

    The shift between Life/Demons and something this book is stunning, but I think reading "The Lottery" many years ago kind of bridged the two aspects of her writing. I just tend to stay more on the Life/Demons side!

  8. i would REALLY like to hear how you explain the character of 'Mary Katherine' in We Have Always Lived In The Castle because,personally, have had trouble evaluating the character myself.

  9. I don't think I can, because we only see her through her narrative, and she's clearly an unreliable narrator. Jackson just doesn't give us enough information. I'm not at all an expert, but she doesn't seem like a real psychopath, does she? Though we don't know why she did what she did to her family.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!