We Have Always Lived in the Castle
By Shirley Jackson
Mary Katherine Blackwood (Merricat to her family) is walking home after a trip to the grocery store describing all the stares and name calling she must endure before finding herself back home and safely ensconced behind a locked door. She shares her home with her older sister Constance and their Uncle Julian, neither of which ever leave the house. The three have lived under a cloud of suspicion and ridicule after several family members were found dead of arsenic poisoning one night many years ago. Constance was acquitted of the murders, and after her release, she retreated to the house and hasn’t left since. Her fear of others and the outside world is palpable. Merricat tries to help as best she can but is hampered in her own way. A teenager of 18, Merricat still thinks and acts like a child, unable to deal with change, afraid for her sister, and prone to outbursts of anger.
One day their cousin Charles shows up for a visit. His motives seem very sinister to Merricat who takes an immediate dislike to him. Constance, oddly, seems to relish having a visitor but you can feel the tension building in her attempting to placate Charles, restrain Merricat, and care for the ailing Uncle Julian. Merricat takes it upon herself to drive Charles from their safe haven wanting to return to their comforting schedule of cleaning and cooking.
In one of the most affecting and riveting scenes in the book, a fire ravages the house and the townspeople show up to fight the fire and heckle the family. “Let it burn” chants echo over the flames and after the fire is extinguished, the onlookers wreck the house — trashing furniture, smashing plates and carefully cared for and cherished pieces of family history with little regard. It’s fantastically abhorrent to see the actions of the people mixed with the raw emotions of the sisters. It made me want to put the book down but I couldn’t, wanting desperately to know they would survive the unconscionable actions of the townspeople.
You can’t say this book has a happy ending but you come to an understanding with Merricat and Constance and are glad to see they are happy and feel safe in the small, tragic world that is their own. Jackson weaves in agoraphobic fears and traits so well that you almost believe the sisters are better off alone, locked away in a house reclaimed by vines and shrouded in cardboard and spare wood staring out at the world through peep holes.
This was a marvelously refreshing book to read. After the description above I’m sure you may be wondering why I would say that but the characters are so amazing and clever that you may want to stay in their world with them even though it is suffocating and sad.